The Democratic-controlled House approved $410 billion legislation Wednesday that boosted domestic programs, bristled with earmarks and chipped away at policies left behind by the Bush administration. The vote was 245-178, largely along party lines.
Republicans assailed the measure as too costly — particularly on the heels of a $787 billion stimulus bill that President Barack Obama signed last week. But Democrats jabbed back.
"The same people who drove the economy into the ditch are now complaining about the size of the tow truck," said Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., pointing out the large increase in deficits that President George W. Bush and GOP-controlled Congresses amassed.
From the GOP side, Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas said the legislation was "going to grow the government 8.3 percent ... but the family budget which has to pay for the federal budget only grew at 1.3 percent last year."
The debate occurred one day after Obama told Congress in a prime time television address that he intends to cut deficits in half over the next four years, and one day before he submits tax and spending plans for the coming year. Given the extraordinary costs of the financial industry bailout and the stimulus, the White House projects this year's budget shortfall will be $1.5 trillion, triple the previous record of $455 billion in 2008.
In a symbolic bow to the recession, Democrats included in the spending measure a prohibition on a cost-of-living increase for members of Congress for the year.
Overall, the legislation would provided increases of roughly 8 percent for the federal agencies it covered, about $32 billion more than last year.
The bill is intended to allow smooth functioning of the government through the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year. The Senate has yet to vote on its version.
After persuading lawmakers to keep earmarks off the stimulus bill, Obama made no such attempt on the first non-emergency spending measure of his presidency. The result was that lawmakers claimed billions in federal funds for pet projects — a total of 8,570 earmarks at a cost of $7.7 billion, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. Majority Democrats declined to provide a number of earmarks, but said the cost was far smaller, $3.8 billion, 5 percent less than a year ago.
Among the earmarks was one sponsored by Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., who secured $200,000 for a "tattoo removal violence outreach program" in Los Angeles. Aides said the money would pay for a tattoo removal machine that could help gang members or others shed visible signs of their past, and anyone benefiting would be required to perform community service.
Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., said the bill included at least a dozen earmarks for clients of PMA Group, a lobbying company now at the center of a federal corruption investigation.
"It's simply not responsible to allow a soon-to-be-criminally indicted lobbying firm to win funding, all borrowed, in this bill," he said. No charges have been filed against the firm or its principals, although the company's offices were raided earlier this month, and it has announced plans to disband by the end of the month.
Federal prosecutors are investigating PMA Group's founder and president, Paul Magliochetti, who is a former top aide to Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds defense programs.
In remarks on the House floor, Republican leader John Boehner urged Obama to veto the legislation, citing earmarks.
At the White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs responded only in general terms whether that was possible.
"There is great concern in this building and by the president about earmarks," Gibbs said. "Without having looked specifically at a piece of legislation, I'm hesitant to throw out that four-letter word, `Veto.'"
After eight years without control of the White House, congressional Democrats also used the legislation to target several policies of former President Bush.
Under the bill, Mexican-licensed trucks are banned from operating outside commercial zones along the border with the United States. The Teamsters union, which supported Obama's election last year, had sought the move. The Bush administration backed a pilot program to permit up to 500 trucks from 100 Mexican motor carriers access to U.S. roads.
Bush administration restrictions on travel to Cuba were loosened in the legislation, to permit more frequent visits and expand the list of family members permitted to make trips to see relatives on the Communist nation-island.
Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., took aim at a provision that he said would vastly broaden the government's ability to invoke the threat of climate change to halt economic development. "Most all of the shovel-ready projects on the trillion-dollar stimulus bill would in fact be at risk," he said.
Nominally, the provision halts implementation of a Bush-era regulation that lists the polar bear as a threatened species, and Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said it would merely give the new administration 60 days to decide its fate.
Democrats also inserted a provision into the bill to end a program that allows students in the District of Columbia to use federal funds to attend private schools of their choice. Boehner, who helped establish the program as part of a political bargain several years ago, called the move "hideous."