WASHINGTON – Fiscal conservatives won a small but symbolically important victory Thursday in the Senate, killing funding for a seafood promotion program that had been tucked inside a bill for the Iraq war and further hurricane relief for the Gulf Coast.
Led by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and egged on by conservative activists upset with a bevy of add-ons unrelated to the war or hurricane aid, senators voted 51-44 to kill the funding.
"Charlie the Tuna and the Chicken of the Sea mermaid are doing their job just fine without any help of the federal government," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "Let me save the American taxpayers $15 million right now by telling all Americans now to eat seafood. Eat seafood. It's good for you."
The vote was the first successful effort to trim the $106.5 billion measure, which is about $12 billion more than President Bush is willing to accept.
Despite a sternly worded veto threat on Tuesday, the Senate rejected efforts Wednesday to cut the measure back to Bush's request and to kill a controversial $700 million project to relocate a rail line along the Mississippi coast so the state can build a new east-west highway.
Thursday's vote surprised even Coburn, who appeared willing to accept defeat on a voice vote. But Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., grew impatient and forced a roll call.
It was the first time in memory that spending hawks had clashed with the powerful Appropriations Committee and won a floor vote. McCain has scrubbed spending bills for years for so-called pork barrel projects, but routinely lost votes to kill them as appropriators and senior lawmakers in both parties banded together to swat his efforts down.
But the issue of curbing congressional pet projects is gaining resonance with voters. "The Republican base is angry and they're tired of all this spending," McCain said in an interview.
The seafood promotion program lampooned by conservatives was but a small part of a $1.1 billion relief package for the Gulf Coast seafood industry that was added to the measure during committee debate by Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby.
Coburn has a bevy of amendments remaining, and he's optimistic that he'll prevail on some of them. He has the support of the White House and the Pentagon on an amendment to kill a bill provision to give Northrop Grumman — owner of the Ingles Shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss. — up to $500 million or so in compensation for business disruption caused by Hurricane Katrina.
The corporation has insurance coverage for the business losses and is currently in litigation. If the federal money were awarded to Northrop Grumman, the Pentagon says the company's insurers may be let off the hook while taxpayers would be left holding the bag.
Coburn may also try to kill $230 million in procurement costs for three unrequested V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft tucked into the bill despite concerns about their safety and suitability for Iraq operations.
Debate got off to a sluggish start Thursday as Sen. Ron Wyden, R-Ore., spent almost five hours pleading with the Senate to allow a vote on an amendment to make oil companies pay the full royalties due on oil and natural gas extracted from federal lands. Wyden said oil companies, at a time of record profits and surging gasoline prices, are unfairly being awarded relief.
"While they're getting clobbered at the pump, the taxpayers of this country are spending needlessly billions and billions of dollars" on the subsidies, Wyden said.
The underlying bill contains $67.6 billion for Pentagon war operations and $27.1 billion for hurricane relief. The funding for hurricane relief exceeds Bush's request by $7.4 billion.