WASHINGTON-The Senate approved Tuesday evening an overdue $410 billion spending package to cover the budget year that began in October 2008, but only after Democrats played legislative ball with Republicans. The bill passed 62-35.
"This has taken far too long," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, adding that Republicans are "saying no to everything."
The Senate failed by one vote last week to approve the budget, when some Democrats broke ranks to vote "no" because of certain provisions contained in the bill. Reid then had to agree to allow Republicans to offer amendments to ensure the bill's passage this week, a maneuver that allowed the GOP to lambaste Democrats and the budget on talk shows over the weekend.
In any other situation, senators may have voted for some of the amendments to the bill, like preventing funds from going toward the Fairness Doctrine, but Democratic leadership urged defeat of all the measures so the budget wouldn't be further delayed. Still, the Fairness Doctrine amendment drew support from more than half a dozen Democrats.
One amendment sought to preserve the Washington, D.C., school voucher program, a $14 million-a-year program that provides scholarships to about 1,700 low-income students in the district. (See "Vouchers under fire," Feb. 24, 2009.) The amendment was defeated largely along party lines. The provision in the current spending bill requires Congress and the Council of the District of Columbia to re-approve the voucher program, which is unlikely.
"It was proposed as a pilot program," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. "It ought to withstand the oversight and review that every single program does."
The budget increases discretionary spending by 8 percent, which Republicans point out is higher than the inflation rate, and has fueled debate because of its 8,500 earmarks-local projects funded by federal dollars that don't go through the regular budgetary process. President Obama had promised to forbid earmarks, but politicos assume he is saving his personal capital for other battles. His chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, said the budget is "last year's business," excusing the president from responsibility for the earmarks.
An estimated 60 percent of the earmarks in the bill belong to Democrats, with 40 percent tagged to Republicans. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a longtime foe of earmarks, led a charge to strip pork from the budget, but that bid was defeated. (See "Taking on earmarks," March 3, 2009.)
Some Hill sources are saying the budget vote foreshadows future dissensions within the Democratic Party in the Senate. Three Democratic senators-Evan Bayh (Ind.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), and Russ Feingold (Wis.)-voted "no," but more than half a dozen Republicans voted "aye."