Some Democrats shun huge spending bill

March 4, 2009 2:12:21 PM PST
Senate Democratic leaders are working hard to suppress dissent within their party over boosting agency spending by 8 percent as the government runs whopping deficits and constituents are forced to scrimp on their own budgets. Coming to the rescue are a few Republicans standing ready to help pass the pending $410 billion catchall spending bill - and allow lawmakers in both parties to get the thousands of pet projects they crave and above-inflation budget increases for favorite programs like education.

A close vote is expected late this week to advance the sweeping spending bill, which wraps together the budgets for 12 Cabinet departments and other agencies, to President Barack Obama. The White House promises to sign it despite unhappiness over the 8,000 or so homestate pet projects it contains.

Democrats and their allies control 58 seats in the Senate, but 60 votes will be needed to close debate and free the measure for Obama's desk.

A few Democrats are voicing opposition to the bill, however, unhappy with its cost and changes to U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Most significantly, Democrats Evan Bayh of Indiana and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin announced Wednesday that they will vote against the bill. Both urged Obama to veto it.

"There's just a disconnect between what people are having to go through in their daily lives - tightening their belts, economizing where they can - and what they see the government is doing," Bayh said in an interview. "I just think it's tone deaf and, substantively, we do need to get the deficit under control."

Democratic leaders scrambled to hold onto other Democrats, even as some GOP leaders conceded the bill is going to pick up GOP votes that would prove critical to its passage.

"I just don't know whether we have enough votes to stop it," said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., the No. 3 GOP leader in the Senate.

The measure contains budget increases, on average, of 8 percent for the domestic agencies it covers, far more than they received under the Bush administration. But moderates such as Bayh are unhappy with the additional spending, especially after many agencies received huge infusions of money under the just-enacted economic recovery bill.

At the same time, Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Bill Nelson of Florida are weighing whether to oppose the legislation over a provision buried in it that would moderate rules on travel to Cuba and would make it easier for Cuba to pay for imports of food and medicine.

Democratic leaders hope to clear the bill - it passed the House last week - to meet a Friday deadline. That's when a stopgap funding law that keeps the government going, mostly at 2008 levels, runs out.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is also trying to keep the bill free of floor amendments that would force the measure into negotiations with the House that would delay enactment or kill the measure altogether.

But that means Democrats will have to cast some politically difficult votes. One of the most uncomfortable was expected Wednesday afternoon on an amendment by Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to kill 13 so-called "earmarks" requested by lawmakers for projects sought by PMA Group, a lobbying company at the center of a federal corruption investigation.

The PMA Group, which recently folded, had a reputation for funneling campaign money to lawmakers that obtained earmarks for its clients and is under investigation by the Justice Department over whether the company reimbursed some employees for campaign contributions to members of Congress who requested the projects.

On Cuba, Menendez is upset by a provision that would restore travel rules permitting people to visit relatives in Cuba once every 12 months. President George W. Bush imposed rules in 2004 that limited travel to just two weeks every three years and confined visits to immediate family members.

The omnibus bill also would lift restrictions on financing imports of U.S. food and medicine into Cuba and effectively reverse Bush administration rules requiring "cash-in-advance" payment.

"If the omnibus bill is signed by the president as is, he will be extending a hand while the Castro regime maintains its iron-handed clenched fist," Menendez said Monday.

The underlying legislation will need at least a few GOP votes to clear a key legislative hurdle on Friday.

Sens. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., the Appropriations Committee's top Republican, and Richard Shelby, R-Miss., are the only Republicans so far to publicly announce support for the bill. But several other Republicans have said they may support it, including Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

Democratic leaders are also hopeful of attracting the votes of Sens. Kit Bond, R-Mo., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.