How Democrats work with tight purse

After blitzing six top-priority bills through the House in their first 100 legislative hours, Democrats struck a quick deal on unfinished spending bills from the last Congress, and made it look easy.

It's the first test of whether the new majority on Capitol Hill can keep promises to voters to rein in federal budget deficits, yet also fund its party's defining priorities.

Lawmakers face tough deadlines: Money to run the government for fiscal year (FY) 2007 dries up on Feb. 15 unless Congress acts, and President Bush's budget for FY 2008 arrives at the Capitol this Monday morning. In a bid to move quickly, House Democrats precooked a master compromise with the Senate Wednesday that rolls all nine remaining spending bills into one.

The deal accepts the White House ceiling of $463.5 billion, avoiding a clash with Mr. Bush. But it carves out some $10 billion for "unmet needs," including veterans' healthcare, low-income housing, education, and some 500 research programs.

Not included were any new earmarks, or member projects, funding for a new round of military base closures, and the annual congressional pay raise. Republicans, who were not allowed to propose amendments on the Democratic bill, complained that they had been left out of the process, but more than one-quarter of the House GOP caucus voted for the bill.

"This is a process that was required by the failure of the last Congress to do its work," said House majority leader Steny Hoyer, before Wednesday's vote.

As the 109th Congress prepared to leave town in December, Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin, who now chairs the House Appropriations Committee, warned that by their "act of abdication" as the majority party, Republicans had "given up any right to criticize in any way whatever devices we have to use in order to dispose of the unfinished business of this Congress."

In Washington terms, $10 billion is not much in a spending cycle that totals more than $2 trillion. But it sends a strong signal, reinforcing what Democrats say will be a key issue in the 2008 election campaign: their commitment to help the middle class.

"It doesn't take a lot of money to get a lock on this issue. It takes some well-publicized votes," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "It's an indication of where their heads and their hearts are. In the arcane world of symbolic politics, they really hit pay dirt."

Their targets for new spending include: $3.6 billion for veterans' healthcare, a $260 increase to the maximum Pell grant for some 5.3 million college students, $3.5 billion for federal highways, $1.4 billion for low-income housing, as well as new funds for low-performing schools, Head Start, special education, the National Institutes of Health, law enforcement, and global HIV/AIDS prevention.

This deal combines features of an omnibus spending bill, which rolls all unfinished spending bills into one, and a continuing resolution, which funds current programs at the level of the previous fiscal year.

Another selling point for voters is a ban on new congressional earmarks, which have figured in recent corruption cases involving members of Congress. "This is an earmark-free bill," says Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D) of Illinois, who chairs the Democratic Caucus. "To get this done with 57 Republican votes, that's a big deal."

But critics note the bill does not "turn off" some 28 earmarks that were funded in FY 2006, including $185 million for agricultural research projects and $50 million provided in FY 2004 to build a rain forest in Iowa. The prairie rainforest, arguably the most controversial after Alaska's $223 million "bridge to nowhere," has until Dec. 31, 2007, to find matching funds, a prospect that critics say is not likely to happen. In all, ongoing earmarks add up to at least $70 million, according to the Republican Study Committee, which represents conservative Republicans.

Still, anti-earmark groups praise Democrats for nixing all new earmarks, at least for a year. "It's a good thing to show that the country can survive without earmarks, but there's a danger that members of Congress may lobby agencies directly to get projects funded. That's a less transparent process than we already have," says Tom Finnegan, a spokesman for the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste.

"I can point to project after project in my district that is gone, but they're certainly not gone in West Virginia and Nevada," says Rep. Tom Cole (R) of Oklahoma, referring to the home states of Senate appropriations committee chairman Robert Byrd and majority leader Harry Reid.

On the Senate side, Republicans say they want to amend and debate the bill. "Republicans aren't going to shut down the government, but there will need to be an opportunity for Republican views on this," says Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona. Senate Democrats aim to wrap up this bill before the Feb.15 deadline.

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