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Obama Gets Omnibus And Earmark Fight

A $409.6 billion omnibus appropriations bill cleared Congress Tuesday even as the White House pursued new steps to try to pare back the level of parochial spending projects attached to the budget each year.

President Barack Obama is poised to sign the measure into law quickly to avoid any disruption of government operations. But Democrats anticipate that he may use the occasion Wednesday to outline new earmark reforms and answer Republican critics led by his old rival Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)

The decisive Senate vote came on a 62-35 roll call in which Democrats finally reached the 60-vote super majority threshold that had eluded them only last week. Eight Republicans joined in the motion to cut off debate, allowing Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to succeed even with three of his own Democrats defecting.

A Treasury letter related to Cuba travel provisions in the bill proved pivotal as well in winning over needed votes. But just to get to the final cloture roll call, Reid had to first beat back a series a series of politically punishing Republican amendments, many designed to delay enactment by forcing further consideration in the House.

The most dangerous was offered by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) requiring the House and Senate to vote on any future cost-of-living increases for lawmakers rather than allow the pay adjustment to take effect automatically. Given the collapsing economy, Democrats are already committed to canceling any pay adjustment for next year as part of the omnibus bill. And Reid offered a stand-alone bill to accomplish the same result Vitter wanted without entangling the omnibus in the fight.

The Louisianan argued that Democrats were only seeking political cover, and he forced an up-and-down vote on his proposal alone. It was narrowly tabled by a vote of 52-45, setting up the votes on cloture and passage.

Five months late already, the giant measure is really nine bills in one, covering more than 12 Cabinet-level departments and agencies that represent the heart of the domestic budget this year as well as U.S. contributions to global health and foreign aid programs overseas.

The total cost represents a nearly $20 billion increase over the former Bush administration’s spending requests for the fiscal year that began last October. Rather than engage in veto fights last fall, Democrats opted to postpone action until Obama took power in January.

Major increases include new money for food and consumer product safety agencies as well as Wall Street regulators and tax enforcement. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is promised $550 million more for its operations, and an additional $76.5 million is provided for U.S. attorneys to forestall threatened furloughs. IRS spending for tax enforcement is increased to $5.1 billion, a $337 million increase over last year’s level.

Significant new money is provided for education and science initiatives, including a $309 million increase for weather and climate satellites and $754 million for the Energy Department’s Office of Science. From clean water to transit and highway spending, the measure builds on the landmark public works investments already made in the recently enacted economic stimulus bill.

Beyond appropriations, the bill’s 1,132 pages carry with them legislative provisions touching on an array of issues. State attorneys general are given new powers to pursue truth-in-lending cases. The bill terminates an 18-month pilot program to allow Mexican-licensed trucks to compete for long-haul routes in the United States. And down to the last hours, a set of Cuba travel provisions required the Treasury Department to step in to ease differences among Democrats that threatened passage.

 The Mexico truck program began in September 2007 as a way for the United States to meet its commitment under NAFTA to allow freer trucking operations on both sides of the border. But it has faced persistent opposition in Congress, and arecent Transportation Department report found that only 29 of 100 projected Mexican carriers were admitted to the project, and this “level of participation is not adequate to yield statistically valid findings.”

The Cuba travel provisions most directly pit two former House Democratic colleagues, New York Rep. Jose Serrano and now Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, against one another. At issue are Bush-era restrictions on Cuba-Americans visiting relatives in Cuba as well as persons traveling for the purpose of arranging commercial sales of agriculture or medical goods allowed under US sanctions.

Serrano, who oversees Treasury’s budget on the House Appropriations Committee, favors a more liberalized approach and has predicted Obama will as well. But in a letter dated Monday to Menendez, Secy. Timothy Geithner pledged that any such business missions would be narrowly prescribed, require full reporting and be subject to a per diem expenditure cap.

That helped get the New Jersey Democrat’s vote, but it could be a short-lived truce. In a press release immediately after passage, Serrano warned the bill is “not subject to creative interpretation” and has “the force of law.”

Thus to describe the giant measure as routine — as some have — doesn’t really do it justice. But this is scarcely the first time that Congress has resorted to such a catch-all omnibus to wrap up the budget business for an entire year.

The situation is very similar to early 2003, when Republicans and the Bush administration pushed through a nearly $400 billion package after the budget process had collapsed amid partisan fighting the prior year. Filling almost 1,160 pages, that measure was even more complex, including Medicare and farm-disaster spending as well as appropriations. But it moved through the Senate in about six days, and after a quick conference with the House it was signed by Bush.

Looking back, the 2003 debate was much more substantive and focused on major accounts within the bill, rather than on the spending earmarks. By comparison, the current measure devotes substantially less money to earmarks, but that issue has come to dominate the politics so much that it has dwarfed most other issues in the six days of debate.

Caught most in the middle are those Republicans historically allied with the Appropriations committees and with their own stake in earmarks for their home states. Sen. Arlen Specter is such a case. Yet as a senior member of the once-proud panel, he was very cautious even Tuesday about committing himself to the bill.

Back home, he faces a potential challenge from the right in next year’s Republican primary, and supporting even his old committee can be politically dangerous. Taxpayers for Common Sense lists about $25.3 million in earmarks requested by Specter alone in the bill, but when asked Tuesday afternoon about his vote, the Pennsylvania Republican was still hesitant.

“I want to see what the lineup is before I decide,” he told POLITICO.

Hours late, Specter did, joining seven other Republicans in support of the bill: Mississippi Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker; Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby; Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander; Missouri Sen. Kit Bond; Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe.

The three Democrats opposing were:Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana; Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Claire McCaskill of Missouri.

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