Image: Sens. Harry Reid, Dick Durbin
Chip Somodevilla  /  Getty Images
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, left, and Senate Majority Whip  Dick Durbin at a closing session of the White House's forum on health care reform on Thursday.
updated 3/5/2009 9:14:42 PM ET 2009-03-06T02:14:42

Republican senators on Thursday thwarted Democratic leaders' efforts to pass a heavily debated $410 billion bill that would fund most government operations this year.

The bill has been blasted by Sen. John McCain and others for including about 8,000 "earmarks" for pet projects.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he is one vote short of the 60 votes needed to advance the measure toward a final vote. The Nevada Democrat has now decided to allow Republicans more opportunities to change their votes next Monday.

Because of the impasse, the government will run out of money for most of its operations on Friday.

Reid said Thursday night that both the House and the Senate will now have to pass a stopgap spending bill by Friday night.

Battle over earmarks
Republicans say the sprawling bill is too costly and loaded with pet projects.

Those earmarks have drawn the ire of conservatives who equate pet projects with wasteful, unnecessary spending — even though many Republican as well as Democratic lawmakers seek them out. The Senate appeared poised Thursday to send President Barack Obama a huge spending bill that awards big increases to domestic programs and is stuffed with pet projects sought by lawmakers in both parties.

The $410 billion spending bill, spanning 1,122 pages, has an extraordinary reach, wrapping nine spending bills together to fund the annual operating budgets of every Cabinet department except for Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs.

Once considered a relatively bipartisan measure, the measure has come under attack from Republicans — and a handful of Democrats — who say it is filled with wasteful pork barrel projects.

The measure was written mostly over the course of last year, before projected deficits quadrupled and Obama's economic recovery bill left many of the same spending accounts swimming in cash.

And, to the embarrassment of Obama — who promised during last year's campaign to force Congress to curb its pork-barreling ways — the bill contains 7,991 pet projects totaling $5.5 billion, according to calculations by the GOP staff of the House Appropriations Committee.

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McCain, R-Ariz., Obama's opponent last year, called the measure "a swollen, wasteful, egregious example of out-of-control spending" and again criticized the president for pledging to sign the measure despite his earlier promises on earmarks.

"It doesn't sound like he's willing to use his veto pen to back up his vow," McCain said.

Earmarks run gamut
The earmarks run the gamut. There's $190,000 for the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo., $238,000 to fund a deep-sea voyaging program for native Hawaiian youth, agricultural research projects, and grants to local police departments, among many others.

While earmarks have come under attack from conservative watchdog groups and cable television commentators, lawmakers in both parties seek them, arguing they best know the needs of their states and home districts. Under a long-standing tradition, Republicans get about 40 percent of them since they are the minority party.

Several lawmakers took to the floor during the week to defend their projects, including Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who backed $1.7 million for pig odor research . Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., promised $3.8 million to preserve and redevelop part of old Tiger Stadium to help revitalize a distressed area of Detroit.

In another matter, by a 52-42 vote, Democrats cleared the way for the Obama administration to reverse rules issued late in the Bush administration reverse that says greenhouse gases cannot be restricted in an effort to protect polar bears from global warming. Another Bush administration rule that reduced the input of federal scientists in endangered species decisions can also be quickly overturned without a lengthy rulemaking process.

The measure also reverses Bush administration policies that tightened rules on Cuba travel and allowed Mexican trucking firms broad access to U.S. highways. A program popular with Republicans that gives $7,500 private school scholarships to District of Columbia students as an alternative to the city's troubled public schools is in danger of being shut down next year.

Big increase for infants, poor
The big increases — among them a 21 percent boost for a popular program that feeds infants and poor women and a 10 percent hike for housing vouchers for the poor — represent a clear win for Democrats who spent most of the past decade battling with President George W. Bush over money for domestic programs.

Democrats abandoned the budget process last year, opting against veto battles with Bush and instead gambling that Obama would win the election and sign the massive bill into law.

Generous above-inflation increases are spread throughout, including a $2.4 billion, 13 percent increase for the Agriculture Department and a 10 percent increase for the money-losing Amtrak passenger rail system.

Congress also awarded itself a 10 percent increase in its own budget, bringing it to $4.4 billion. But the House inserted a provision denying lawmakers the automatic cost-of-living pay increase they are due next Jan. 1.

The State Department and foreign aid accounts would receive a 12 percent boost.

Separately, the House on Thursday rejected an effort by Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., to launch an ethics committee investigation into possible connections between campaign contributions made by the PMA Group and special projects designated in the spending bill that benefit clients of the firm. The vote to table, or kill, Flake's resolution was 222-181.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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