Omnibus bill's hidden item: a Democratic rift

On Tuesday, Congress passed the spending bill to keep the government running - 160 days late, and not without some unusual friction between House and Senate leaders.

Jim Young/Reuters
Afterglow: Congress's passage of the omnibus spending bill Tuesday night raised concern about wasteful spending and a rift between Democratic leaders.

President Obama’s signature today of a $410 billion bill to fund the government for the rest of fiscal year 2009 wraps up President Bush’s rancorous last year with a Democrat-controlled Congress.

But the omnibus spending package – 160 days overdue – also highlights unexpected rifts between Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, hinting at an unresolved power play already seeping into the next budget cycle.

Last year, Congress delayed voting on 9 of 12 spending bills, thinking it would be easier to reach a consensus this year – with Democrats now holding a larger majority in both houses of Congress.

Yet it remained a tough slog for the bill, which has been criticized as filled with pork. Along with some 8,500 member projects, the bill raises spending for many agencies some 10 percent above 2008 levels.

In an unusual move, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last Thursday said that she would not accept any changes or amendments to the omnibus bill that passed in the House on Feb. 25.

This was in response to the clout of three GOP senators, whose votes were critical to get to the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster on last month's $787 billion economic stimulus bill. Along with a handful of Democrat centrists, they forced significant changes in the House version of the bill.

This was, in some ways, typical. The Senate often forces the House to accept the Senate’s version of a bill. But on the omnibus bill, Representative Pelosi reversed Congress’s historic pecking order – and Senate majority leader Harry Reid with apparent reluctance permitted it.

As the Senate debated whether to change the House bill and eliminate an automatic pay raise for Congress, Senator Reid cautioned that the House would not accept any amendments from the Senate: “There aren’t going to be any limits on this bill that I can get through the House,” he said.

The moment marked a sharp break with tradition. “It’s hard to think of a comparable moment like this,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey. “The tension between the two chambers is becoming very strong, especially the Pelosi-Reid rivalry.”

It is especially striking that the rift has emerged as early as the first two big bills on the agenda, he adds.

Republicans also proposed amendments to cut controversial member projects, including earmarks to 14 clients of a lobbying firm under federal investigation for making campaign donations in exchange for political favors for the group’s clients. The amendment failed 43 to 52.

“I went after as many Republican earmarks as I did Democratic ones,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, who sponsored that and other anti-earmark amendments. He urged President Obama to veto the bill.

“Delaying the fight on earmarks is going to make it harder for him to win,” he says. “He has no power on earmarks other than the veto pen and his popularity. Why not have the fight now, when he has the American people backing him.”

Instead, in a bill signing ceremony Wednesday morning, President Obama laid out principles for earmark reform he hopes Congress will adopt.

These include: a requirement that earmarks be open to scrutiny at public hearings, that earmarks for a for-profit private company be subject to the same competitive bidding requirements as other federal contracts, and that earmarks never be traded for political favors.

In the future, Mr. Obama pledged to seek to eliminate any earmark not serving a “legitimate public purpose” – and to “work with Congress to do so.”

“The future demands that we operate in a different way than we have in the past,” he said.

“So let there be no doubt: this piece of legislation must mark an end to the old way of doing business, and the beginning of a new era of responsibility and accountability that the American people have every right to expect and to demand.”

In response, critics of earmarking praised the president’s attention to the issue, but said that he hadn’t gone far enough.

“I give President Obama credit for acknowledging that earmarks to private companies can too easily lead to corruption,” said Rep. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona. “However, the reforms he announced will do little to stem he practice, especially given Congress’ reluctance to reform itself.”

On the Senate side, Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin called for a modified line-item veto to send “wasteful” earmarks back to the Congress – and a 60-vote hurdle in the Senate.

“While I applaud President Obama’s commitment to crack down on this abusive process, we need stronger measures to ensure that the taxpayers’ money is being spent wisely,” he said, in a statement.

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