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Congress's spending goes unchecked, with more likely

Lawmakers approve war costs, new veterans' benefits, and relief for flooded Midwest. But 'pay as you go' principle is ignored in the Senate.

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The remaining weeks of the 110th Congress hold more budget-busting prospects, including a second emergency-spending bill for domestic priorities.

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"I have consulted with the leadership, and next month the committee will consider a second supplemental to deal with the Midwest floods, hurricane Katrina, and to make critical investments in America," said Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, in a floor speech Thursday.

Congress is also on track to consider a package of tax extenders, including a fix for the Alternative Minimum Tax that is expected to hit some 21 million taxpayers filing 2008 tax returns next year. On Wednesday, the House approved a $62 billion AMT fix, including tax increases for hedge-fund managers and the oil and gas industry to offset the cost of the bill. The bill passed 233 to 189 but faces strong opposition from Senate Republicans, who have the votes to hold up the legislation until the offsets are removed.

Last week, the House held a hearing on a bipartisan bill to establish a commission, along the lines of the Base Closure and Realignment Commission that dealt with military installations, to propose solutions to America's long-term fiscal challenge.

"It should be stated for the record that this hearing was an agreed compromise in return for Blue Dog votes for the budget," said Rep. Jim Cooper (D) of Tennessee, a member of the conservative Blue Dog caucus – a reference to Yellow Dog Democrats being "choked blue" by deficits – and a cosponsor with Rep. Frank Wolf (R) of Virginia of the commission bill.

"Whether this bargain was worth it remains to be seen, he added. "I feel a little bit like that T-shirt we see sold on the street that says, 'My parents got the vacation; all I got was this T-shirt.' "

The nation's future liabilities – including the national debt and unfunded liabilities in Social Security ($7 trillion) and Medicare ($35 trillion) – are $53 trillion, according to a report released last week by former US Comptroller General David Walker and the Peterson Foundation. Congress's fiscal 2009 budget resolution anticipates raising the statutory debt limit to $10.615 trillion – an increase of $800 billion from the current level.