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Omnibus Still One Vote Short

Short by one vote, Senate Democrats abruptly pulled back Thursday night from completing action on a giant omnibus spending bill—forcing leaders to scramble to pass a stopgap measure to keep the government funded through next Tuesday.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) had been confident earlier in the evening that he had the 60 votes needed to cut off debate. But a half-hour after the roll call was to begin, Reid admitted he was still short and agreed to allow debate to continue for a few more days.

“Discretion is the better part of valor,” Reid quipped.

Behind the scenes, the Nevada Democrat appeared to struggle with one in his own leadership, Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.), who was upset with Cuba-related provisions in the bill. Efforts were under way to try to win back the New Jersey Democrat with a letter from Treasury addressing his concerns, but these appear to have been unsuccessful.

The bigger dynamic was on the Republican side. In an interview with Politico earlier in the day, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee and someone working to pass the bill, had predicted more time was needed. And Republicans are shy of voting with Democrats until their colleagues have had a chance to offer more amendments.

As agreed to Thursday night, a dozen more amendments will now be considered, and Reid was hoping still to complete passage Tuesday.

The about face is an embarrassment for Democrats and leaves President Barack Obama exposed to another weekend of Republican calls on television news shows, demanding that he veto the $409.6 billion package filled with thousands of parochial spending projects.

Thus far, the White House has refused to give in, citing the importance of the measure to major agencies, now frozen at last year’s spending levels. But going forward, Obama is under pressure to better spell out his policy toward earmarks, either in the form of tighter caps or singling out individual projects to be denied funding.

Filling 1,132 pages, the sprawling bill 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, or 5 percent, increase over the Bush administration’s spending requests for many of the same accounts. Rather than engage in veto fights last fall, Democrats opted to postpone action until Obama took power in January.

In the interim, most of the government has had to operate under a stopgap spending bill due to expire Friday—and Reid said the House will now send a measure extending this resolution into next week.

Reid’s dilemma has been that to win over Republican support, he had to be willing to allow votes on amendments. But to meet Friday’s deadline, he had to be prepared to kill whatever the GOP offered so that the measure didn’t have to go back to the House for further consultation.

Thus, some otherwise popular initiatives, such as increasing funding for Native-American health programs, were scuttled. Just as days before, Democrats had to rally behind sometimes embarrassing earmarks that had been negotiated between the two chambers back in December.

“The hang-up is the majority leader apparently doesn’t want to allow a vote that might win because the speaker [Nancy Pelosi] doesn’t want the bill back,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). “Well that’s the way Congress works. We have conferences. We have disagreements. I don’t see what the urgency is. I don’t see what the problem is.”

Not as a Republican. The party has been delighted –on a daily basis--in pounding the White House for not being willing to veto the bill.

Leading the charge has been Obama’s old rival, Sen. John McCain, ad again Thursday, the Arizona Republican rose on the floor to lecture the president about the need to take a tougher stand against earmarks.

“The American people are fed up with this kind of system that breeds corruption,” McCain said, throwing in an allusion to Obama’s own earmarks in the past as a freshman senator from Illinois. “The president should veto this bill and send it back to Congress and tell ’em to clean it up.”

But Obama has other tools in his kit, including the power to recommend rescissions this April, when he is already scheduled to send Congress the details of his appropriations requests for the new fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

Such rescissions are still subject to approval by Congress but would allow the new president to separate himself more from past practices even as he presses for tighter spending caps on such projects in the future.

Given his ambitious agenda, Obama would have to proceed carefully. Former President Jimmy Carter badly hurt himself politically when he tried — after little or no consultation — to rescind energy and water projects favored by powerful lawmakers.

But rescissions would allow Obama to push the earmark issue back into the lap of Congress — free of the larger spending bill, which he feels compelled to sign. And while lawmakers are free to ignore his recommendations, the effort would put more punch behind Obama’s promise to impose tighter caps in the future.

The House and Senate Appropriations committees argue that the bill already represents a 50 percent reduction from earmarks in 2006, the last full-fledged year of spending bills under Republican control of the House and Senate. But Democrats fully expect Obama’s final 2010 budget to demand a still lower cap, and the administration has not ruled out seeking rescissions as well.

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