The Senate on Tuesday passed a $410 billion measure to fund the government through October, sending it to President Barack Obama for his signature. Most Republicans denounced it as an example of reckless spending.
The Senate approved the measure by a voice vote after it cleared a key procedural hurdle by a 62-35 vote. Sixty votes were required to shut down debate.
Obama will sign the measure Wednesday, the White House said, but he will also announce steps aimed at curbing lawmakers' penchant for pet projects, known as earmarks.
The $410 billion bill is chock-full of earmarks, and includes significant increases in food aid for the poor, energy research and other programs. It was supposed to have been completed last fall.
The bill ran into an unexpected political hailstorm in Congress after Obama's spending-heavy economic stimulus bill and his 2010 budget plan forecast a $1.8 trillion deficit for the current budget year. And Republicans seized on Obama's willingness to sign a bill packed with pet projects after he assailed them as a candidate.
"If it had not been for the stimulus and the budget proposal it might have been ... noncontroversial," said House GOP leader John Boehner of Ohio. "The stimulus bill riled an awful lot of people up. ... And then the budget proposal comes out."
Extraordinary reachWithin Democratic ranks, there was relief, not jubilation.
The 1,132-page spending bill has an extraordinary reach, wrapping together nine spending bills to fund the annual operating budgets of every Cabinet department except for Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs.
Described by lawmakers as a $410 billion measure — but officially tallied by the Congressional Budget Office at $408 billion because of technicalities involving heating subsidies for the poor — the bill was written mostly over the course of last year, with support from key Republicans such as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the Senate's No. 3 Republican.
They sit on the Senate Appropriations Committee. McConnell is the successful sponsor or co-sponsor of $76 million worth of pet projects, known as "earmarks," not requested by former President George W. Bush, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group. Alexander obtained a more modest 36 earmarks totaling $32 million.
Alexander supported the measure in the end; McConnell did not.
But bipartisan support for the bill evaporated after projected deficits quadrupled and Obama's economic recovery bill left many of the same spending accounts swimming in cash. Congressional aides say the true cost is closer to $410 billion once heating subsidies for the poor passed last year are included.
Some Republicans noted that the government has been functioning just fine for more than five months at last year's funding levels.
"Why not go back to 2008 levels," said Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. "That would be a responsible action that might start giving confidence to the American people."
At issue is the approximately one-third of the budget passed each year by Congress for the operating budgets of Cabinet departments and other agencies. The rest of the budget is comprised of benefits programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — as well as interest payments on the swelling $11 trillion national debt.
Adding in spending bills passed last year for defense, homeland security and the Veterans Administration — as well as $288.7 billion in appropriated money in the stimulus bill — total appropriations so far for 2009 have reached $1.4 trillion. And that's before the Pentagon submits another $75 billion or so request for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Appropriated spending for 2008 was $1.2 trillion; Obama's budget for next year calls for $1.3 trillion in appropriations.
Democrats had long feuded with Bush over domestic appropriations levels and stopped action on the nine bills last year, gambling that Obama would win the election and restore hundreds of cuts proposed by Bush.
And, to the embarrassment of Obama — who promised during last year's campaign to force Congress to curb its pork-barrel ways — the bill contains 7,991 earmarks totaling $5.5 billion, according to calculations by the Republican staff of the House Appropriations Committee.
Among the many earmarks are $485,000 for a boarding school for at-risk native students in western Alaska and $1.2 million for Helen Keller International so the nonprofit can provide eyeglasses to students with poor vision.
Win for DemsAt the same time, the measure chips away at several leftover Bush administration policies. It clears the way for the Obama administration to reverse a rule issued late in the Bush administration that says greenhouse gases may not be restricted 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 big increases — among them a 14 percent boost for a popular program that feeds infants and poor women and a 10 percent increase for housing vouchers for the poor — represent a clear win for Democrats who spent most of the past decade battling with Bush over money for domestic programs.
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 measure also contains a provision denying lawmakers the automatic cost-of-living pay increase they are due next Jan. 1.