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Senate GOP Freshman Scores Major Budget Victory

The Senate on Wednesday added nearly $2 billion in home heating and cooling assistance for the poor, increased international aid to Pakistan and beefed up funding for security along the U.S.-Mexico border, while rejecting an attempt to freeze government spending.

But perhaps the biggest upset of the night, as the Senate slogged through debate on President Obama's $3.6 trillion budget, came from a freshman senator.

Republicans won a major victory that essentially rules out the use of a fast-track budget procedure known as "reconciliation" to create major energy legislation under protection from a Senate filibuster, an effort led by Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb. 

His amendment mandates that any cap and trade program that might be created under reconciliation get 60 votes for passage, a tall order in the Senate where Democrats only have 58 votes and Republicans unanimously oppose the move.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, fired back at Johanns and his Republican colleagues, accusing them of "hypocrisy and duplicity."

She noted Republicans have used the maneuver 14 of the 19 times it has been used in Senate history, cutting food stamps, energy assistance, among other government programs. She implored her Democratic colleagues to oppose Johanns, but more than half did not heed her call.

Twenty-six Democrats supported the amendment, including Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a member of leadership, the Senate's most senior Democratic, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., who is writing health care reform legislation that some believe could have been paid for by revenues from cap and trade.

Still one senior Senate Democratic leadership aide told FOX News, "There are always ways around this kind of thing." The aide declined to elaborate.

Cap and trade creates a system of auctioning off permits to businesses that pollute with mandates reductions in greenhouse gases.

One amendment that was unanimously adopted seeks to ensure that $550 million in additional funding be provided to the Department of Homeland Security along the southern border, as Mexico attempts to deal with violent drug cartels. If the measure survives House-Senate negotiations, instructions would be sent to the Homeland Security Committee to write a bill that authorizes this expenditure.

The $550 million is absorbed by the budget and does not increase deficit projections.

Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., co-authored the amendment which he says provides for approximately 2,000 new hires distributed over Customs and Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, and other related agencies, to do two things: "stop the flow of money...and stop the flow of drugs."

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a top Republican on the committee and fellow co-sponsor, said some 200 communities in the U.S. were "at risk" from violence that is spilling over from Mexico, noting increased "kidnappings, rapes, and home invasions." 

Collins said "guns, weapons, and cash" will be seized in greater numbers with the ramped up resources from what Lieberman called a "surge of troops."

The Senate unanimously approved and amendment by Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., and top committee Republican Richard Lugar of Indiana, along with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who chairs a foreign aid spending subcommittee that provides the administration with $4 billion in additional funding for international assistance. 

Like the Lieberman measure, the Kerry-Leahy-Lugar amendment would be offset by the same budget allowance, though Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said he was "very concerned" that Kerry and colleagues had sought preferential treatment, as all committees were asked to take hits to accommodate a decrease in the deficit over five years.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., lost an attempt to freeze spending for two years at present spending levels.

Senate Democratic leaders have not ruled out using reconciliation to create a cap and trade program, which would bring in massive revenues into federal coffers, to pay for an overhaul of the nation's health care system.

"Vote-a-rama," which starts Thursday, is a process often ridiculed for the confusion it creates, a spectacle of members racing to and fro, often without knowledge for what they are voting.

One former staff director to the Budget Committee, William Hoagland, testified earlier this year that he and his colleagues thought the process "denigrated, diminished, and embarrassed, the institution we love." He and a number of members have suggested reforms to the process, one which would require one "lay over" day during which members are permitted to read amendments.

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