After an angry, swearing late night meeting among top Democrats, Congress voted Friday to give itself another five days to try to complete a long-overdue omnibus spending bill that had become a growing embarrassment for party leaders and President Barack Obama.
Senate Democrats had abruptly pulled back Thursday night after finding themselves one vote short of the 60 needed to cut off debate. The action infuriated Speaker Nancy Pelosi so much that the California Democrat wanted to abandon the $409.6 billion measure and instead push through a stripped-down continuing resolution to keep the government operating through Sept. 30.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D.-Nev.) and his deputy, Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D.-Ill.) were called to Pelosi's office late Thursday night and ultimately prevailed in their argument that Democrats should try to salvage the bill, which includes critical spending increases for vital agencies. But the heated, sometimes profane, exchanges were described as "ugly" by Democrats on both sides of the Capitol. Staff, kicked out in the hall, could hear the yelling, and Pelosi herself seemed a little abashed the next day, joking that nothing her leadership could say to her now would match the night before.
The speaker's anger was directed primarily at Senate Republicans, who withheld their support even when they had substantial interests in the measure. Pelosi feels that Republicans are gaming the Democrats, who have to be tougher in turn by forcing them to live with the consequences of what she sees as obstruction.
The speaker's scorched earth alternative, killing the omnibus, was too much for some in her own leadership. But Pelosi's anger is shared by many House Democrats along with the fear that the Senate debate is being dragged out by Republicans as part of a concerted campaign to pummel Obama even as the young president tries to keep the nation focused on his economic agenda and budget going forward.
With funding running out Friday, Pelosi finally called her members back to Washington to pass the five day extension on a 328-58 vote. Ironically enough, this came after a 218-160 vote in which Democrats killed a Republican alternative that would have cut about $17 billion from the omnibus and come closer to the stripped down alternative the speaker herself had been threatening.
By prior agreement, the Senate cleared the House bill immediately, but Reid still has a climb ahead as he works toward another attempt at cloture Tuesday night. He has promised Republicans about a dozen amendments, but his challenge is to defeat each so the omnibus measure can go straight onto the White House.
The whole episode left Obama exposed to another weekend of Republican calls on television news shows, demanding that he veto the package which contains thousands of parochial projects for members of both parties.
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.
"Discretion is the better part of valor," Reid quipped when abruptly pulling back from the vote Thursday night.. But for a man so skilled at counting votes, there were ample warning flags that he was rushing events.
Behind the scenes, Reid had 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, where Minority Whip John Kyl (R.-Ariz.) appeared to play a greater than usual role in pulling back votes from the Democrats.
Reid cmplained privately that a last minute Republican switch left him exposed after announcing the 8:15 p.m. vote. But in an interview with POLITICO earlier in the day, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee and someone working with Democrats to pass the bill, had predicted more time -and an extension-would be needed.
Part of the confusion may be explained by the fact that so many top senators, including Reid, spent so much of Thursday at a White House summit on health care reform. The normal face-to-face floor exchanges didn't happen until the evening, and the episode reflects the strain on Democrats- so busy looking forward with Obama's agenda that they can trip over their own.
In fact, a solid bloc of Republicans-including some in the party leadership-are prepared to help pass the bill but remain 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. If any are adopted, it would mean that the House would have to take up the bill again, and the new Wednesday deadline will be tight enough for even the Senate to meet.
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.
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. And 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 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. 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 poitically 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.
By David Rogers