Liberals Lose Bigtime In Budget Battle

This much is clear: Democrats in Congress buckled under pressure from the White House to hold spending near the administration’s specified limit, and they’re poised to give the president more war money with no strings attached.

But the buckling didn’t stop there.

Democratic policy priorities that liberals hoped would be included in the omnibus spending legislation were also left on the cutting-room floor.

Under a veto threat, Democrats removed the reversal of a long-standing anti-abortion provision, abandoned long-sought provisions that would have loosened travel and trade restrictions on Cuba and deleted a line item demanded by unions that would have required federal contractors to pay union wages in disaster areas like New Orleans.

What remains is a smattering of modest policy advances and spending increases on health care, education and transportation that Democrats are touting as the appropriations bill makes its way to the president.

While Democratic leaders have been forced to make the difficult concessions that will enable Congress to adjourn before Christmas, liberals are starting to snipe away, believing their party caved in too easily to an unpopular president.

“We should have sent him more appropriations bills and made him veto all of them,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). “We’re letting him off easy. … That’s all I’ll say.”

A large coalition of environmental groups aren’t letting Democrats off the hook, though.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, National Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club, among others, are urging a ‘no’ vote on the omnibus, which they say gives away too much.

Usually the party in power can sneak in various policy riders with an end-of-year omnibus budget bill, but the president has made it clear he’s not going to look the other way, and he’s uninterested in any compromises.

And the reality is that in a divided government, the priorities of the liberal base are likely to suffer for now.

“A lot of the policy priorities were kept out of there,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), citing the exclusion of pro-labor measures and the genetic anti-discrimination legislation he has been backing. It would prevent insurers or employers from discriminating based on genetic information.

“There are a number of smaller policy things that got in,” he said.

Once the Senate adds about $70 billion for Iraq, there’s a chance that dozens of anti-war House Democrats will bail on the omnibus bill and vote against final passage to express their displeasure over the war money.

Outside the huge omnibus measure, Democrats seem likely to grant controversial immunity protection to telecoms involved in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act program, a move bound to anger civil liberties advocates.

And Democrats have been unable to enforce their own pay-as-you-go rules on the alternative minimum tax legislation.

Earlier, the party was forced to remove hate crimes provisions from the defense authorization bill, killing a provision backed by the Congressional Black Caucus, a linchpin of the Democratic base.

On the energy front, environmental groups are angry that Democrats have had to back away from renewable electricity standards and promised repeals of tax cuts for the oil companies.

There are a few victories.

The policy riders stuffed into the omnibus bill include the reversal of a long-standing prohibition that prevented the District of Columbia from spending money to implement a needle-exchange program.

The bill instructs the Justice Department’s inspector general to monitor the controversial “national security letters” that the FBI has sent out and it forbids spending on “lavish banquets and conferences.”

Democrats also cut back on abstinence funding while deleting language that the Congressional Hispanc Caucus strongly opposed regarding English-language-only workplaces.

The bill prevents commercial shale production, which some environmentalists oppose, and cut the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy’s media budget by nearly half.

Democrats, too, picked up small wins on immigration, removing riders that would have punished states and cities that refused to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

These and other small gains, though, don’t add up to enough to mollify a disgruntled liberal bloc.

“Where is everything we fought for? Where is our backbone?” wondered a top Senate Democratic aide. “What’s the point of being in charge and spending months writing these bills if we just end up folding to the administration?”

Aides to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) were quick to point out all the priorities funded in the omnibus, repeating the line that this budget is “Bush’s number, our priorities.”

Indeed, Democrats will close the year touting a historic increase in fuel mileage standards, hikes in Pell grants, lobbying and ethics reform, and the first minimum wage increase in a decade.

And last week the Senate cleared a major overhaul of the Federal Housing Authority, a move designed to show Congress is reacting to the mortgage crisis.

“We worked within the president’s numbers, but with our priorities,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who hails from the more moderate wing of the Democratic caucus.

“We can leave town having acted responsibly. It’s not the perfect outcome, but this is divided government.”

Rather than apologize for falling short with their base, however, Democratic leadership aides were unapologetic, believing they need to get more Democratic senators elected so that Reid has better than a 51-49 margin to work with in 2009.

“One thing that’s painfully clear is we need more senators committed to the American people than protecting the president,” said Reid spokesman Rodell Mollineau. “Not senators who are endorsing the status quo.”
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