WASHINGTON – The Democratic-controlled Senate Thursday began debating a huge spending bill covering about one-sixth of the federal budget as the final step in completing the unfinished budget business inherited from Republicans.
The $463.5 billion measure combines nine spending bills that failed to pass Congress last year under GOP control.
Ex-Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., refused to take up domestic appropriations then for fear of seeing vulnerable Republicans cast politically difficult votes, instead scheduling losing votes on legislation to repeal the estate tax and an amendment to the Constitution to ban gay marriage.
Even after the election, Senate GOP conservatives blocked official House-Senate talks on a bill to finance military base construction projects.
Now, Republicans are complaining about the heavy-handed tactics used by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to muscle the bill through the Senate. Republicans predicted he would shut off their right to offer amendments, but they admit Reid has them boxed in because any attempt to filibuster the bill would invite charges that Republicans were shutting down the government when a stopgap measure expires next week.
President Bush has signaled he will sign the budget bill.
The bill sticks within spending limits set by Bush, though Democrats created wiggle room through maneuvers such as cutting $3 billion from his request to implement a 2005 round of military base closures and $3.5 billion in phantom savings from highway spending.
Democrats have announced they will restore the base closing cuts when advancing Bush's $100 billion request for additional Iraq war funding for this year.
Democrats shifted the money to programs popular in both parties such as education, veterans, health research and grants to state and local law enforcement agencies.
The bill was drafted chiefly by the chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations committees, Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., and Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., though powerful Senate Republicans also played major roles.
Among the resulting trade-offs were cuts to Bush's budget requests for NASA and foreign aid.
Community development block grants were frozen at current levels, as was aid for the Amtrak railroad. Still, advocates for those programs portrayed it as a victory of sorts in comparison to the budget that Bush submitted a year ago.
The amount intended to combat AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis overseas would grow by $1.3 billion, to $4.5 billion. That would pay for the president's $225 million initiative to fight malaria and increase the U.S. contribution to $724 million for a global fund for those diseases.
GOP Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the Senate's sole doctor, blasted Democrats for failing to fund a $30 million program he authored to test newborns for the AIDS virus. A spokesman for Appropriations Chairman Byrd said lawmakers put the money elsewhere because no state has yet met the criteria to receive it.
Among the beneficiaries is the National Institutes of Health, which would receive a $620 million budget hike, about 2 percent. The FBI, facing hiring curbs, would get a modest $200 million increase in its $6 billion budget.
The maximum Pell Grant for lower-income college students would increase by $260 to $4,310 — the first increase since 2003.
The bill is also free of congressional "earmarks" — the projects lawmakers like to slip into spending bills, such as grants for local governments, home-state universities, hospitals and roads. Such projects exploded in number under Republican control of Congress over the last 12 years.
Congress earned a black eye over mandating project-specific appropriations when former Republican Rep. Randy Cunningham admitted taking $2.4 million in bribes in exchange for earmarking projects for defense contractors. Cunningham is now serving an eight-year federal prison sentence.