Big spenders: Dems fail in ap­pro­pri­a­tions ploy

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Robert No­vak

The ploy had been hatched be­hind closed doors by Demo­cratic lead­ers of both houses. A pork-laden ap­pro­pri­a­tions bill filled with $1 bil­lion in ear­marks would com­bine with veto-proof spend­ing for vet­er­ans. In­stead, the two mea­sures were de­cou­pled in a Se­nate party-line vote on Nov. 6.

The Demo­cratic scheme to present Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush with a bill that he could not veto seemed a clever strat­egy, but it was based on pre­sump­tion of Repub­li­can ig­no­rance and cow­ardice. As late as Nov. 5, savvy GOP Se­nate staffers pre­dicted Sen. Kay Bai­ley Hutchi­son’s de­cou­pling mo­tion would fail. In fact, she did not lose a Repub­li­can sen­a­tor, as Democrats fell far short of the 60 votes needed to keep the two bills to­gether.

Dur­ing a con­fus­ing week on Capi­tol Hill, law­mak­ers en­gaged in games dif­fi­cult for in­sid­ers to un­der­stand and in­com­pre­hen­si­ble for or­di­nary vot­ers. As the first Congress con­trolled by Democrats since 1994 nears the end of its first year, the de­sire to bring home the ba­con trumped con­cern over the fall­ing dol­lar, the cri­sis in Pak­istan and the con­tin­u­ing con­flict in Iraq.

The rea­son that not one of 13 ap­pro­pri­a­tions bills had reached the pres­i­dent’s desk was Mr. Bush’s threat to veto at least 10 of them. Doubt­ing their abil­ity to over­ride th­ese ve­toes, Demo­cratic lead­ers con­jured up com­bined pack­ages that Mr. Bush would dare not veto. The ear­mark-heavy ap­pro­pri­a­tions bill for the La­bor and Health and Hu­man Ser­vices (HHS) de­part­ments would be joined with the De­fense bill, which funds Iraq, and with Mil­i­tary Con­struc­tion, which con­tains money for vet­er­ans.

The De­fense com­po­nent was quickly re­moved af­ter protests by Rep. John Murtha, in­flu­en­tial chair­man of the House De­fense Ap­pro­pri­a­tions sub­com­mit­tee. But plans for a La­bor-HHS merger with Mil­i­tary Con­struc­tion went for­ward. A stand-alone bill con­tain­ing vet­er­ans money had passed the House, 409 to 2, on June 15, and a sim­i­lar mea­sure got Se­nate ap­proval, 92 to 1, on Sept. 6 — mea­sures Mr. Bush would sign. But Democrats held off fi­nal pas­sage so they could meld it with La­bor-HHS, which they did in the Se­nate-House con­fer­ence re­port two weeks ago.

At the same time, the pork con­tent of La­bor-HHS grew. Cit­i­zens Against Gov­ern­ment Waste found 2,274 ear­marks in the bill worth $1 bil­lion. They in­clude $1.5 mil­lion for the AFL-CIO Work­ing for Amer­ica In­sti­tute and $2.2 mil­lion for the AFL-CIO Ap­palachian Coun­cil. Demo­cratic Sens. By­ron Dor­gan and Kent Con­rad, North Dakota’s two pro­fessed bud­get bal­ancers, got $1 mil­lion for Bis­marck State Col­lege. Sen. Arlen Specter, the Se­nate La­bor-HHS Ap­pro­pri­a­tions sub­com­mit­tee’s rank­ing Repub­li­can, pro­cured $882,025 for “ab­sti­nence ed­u­ca­tion” in his home state of Penn­syl­va­nia.

The con­fer­ence re­port’s “com­pro­mise” La­bor-HHS bill at $151 bil­lion was ac­tu­ally more ex­pen- sive than ei­ther the House or Se­nate ver­sion. It con­tains a $1 mil­lion ear­mark for a Thomas Daschle Cen­ter for Pub­lic Ser­vice and Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Democ­racy at South Dakota State Univer­sity to honor the for­mer Se­nate ma­jor­ity leader who was de­feated for re-elec­tion in 2004. Spon­sored by Se­nate Pres­i­dent Pro Tem Robert Byrd and Ma­jor­ity Leader Harry Reid, the Daschle Cen­ter was one of nine ear­marks “air­dropped” into the fi­nal ver­sion by the Se­nateHouse con­fer­ence with­out be­ing passed by ei­ther the Se­nate or House. Silently re­moved from the bill by the con­fer­ence re­port was the pro­hi­bi­tion, passed by the Se­nate in a rare de­feat for ear­mark­ers, against spend­ing $1 mil­lion for the Wood­stock “hip­pies” mu­seum in Bethel, N.Y.

In the past, if a point of or­der against an ap­pro­pri­a­tions bill was af­firmed, the whole bill would die. But a new rule pressed by Democrats this year made it pos­si­ble to split vet­er­ans spend­ing away from La­bor-HHS with­out killing the bill. All 46 Repub­li­can sen­a­tors present voted to sus­tain the point of or­der, so that the Se­nate fell 13 votes short of the 60 votes needed to keep the two bills to­gether.

Con­se­quently, the Se­nate on Nov. 6 again had to pass the bloated La­bor-HHS bill. It did, but by a 56 to 37 mar­gin, short of a veto-proof ma­jor­ity, as 19 Repub­li­can sen­a­tors changed their af­fir­ma­tive vote from the last time they con­sid­ered this bill. In an ex­tra­or­di­nary out­burst against the 19 switch­ers, Ma­jor­ity Leader Reid called them “sheep and chick­ens” who had “cho­sen to de­fend a failed pres­i­dent.” In truth, he had just lost an au­da­cious ploy.

Robert No­vak is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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