WASHINGTON – Democrats won a key test vote Tuesday as the Senate prepares to send a massive $464 billion catchall pending bill to President Bush's desk.
The bill would wrap up budget business left unfinished last year after Congress failed to complete work on nine spending bills covering foreign aid and every domestic agency save for the Department of Homeland Security.
The measure will be the first major bill to work its way through both the House and Senate since the Democratic takeover, but it also has support from the president since it sticks within the overall budget limit set by him and congressional Republicans last year.
The Senate voted 71-26 Tuesday to limit debate on the bill, clearing the way for a final vote in time to beat a midnight deadline Thursday. The vote came despite GOP frustration with hardball tactics employed by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who denied rank and file lawmakers any chance to amend the measure.
That's ordinarily the kind of move that incites the minority party to filibuster. But with much in the bill to please senators, including senior GOP members of the Appropriations Committee, Republicans didn't have the stomach to hold up the bill.
The bill reflects the priorities of its authors, the Democratic chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations committees, who shifted funds from Bush's requests for foreign aid and military base projects to popular programs such as health research, law enforcement and low-income housing.
Most of the funding shifts were small, but were needed to avoid furloughs or other problems at agencies such as the FBI that are limping along at or below last year's funding levels. State governments in particular are anxious for additional highway contruction funds instead of seeing them frozen at 2006 levels.
All of the budgeting work was supposed to have been completed months ago, but Republicans didn't want to make some of the tough choices before the election and made no serious effort to complete the work after it.
The measure drew criticism from Republicans for cutting $3 billion from Bush's request to implement a 2005 round of military base closings and consolidations. They said the budget cuts would slow the redeployment of 12,000 troops stationed in Germany and South Korea to domestic bases such as Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., and also delay funding for communities to prepare closed bases for other uses.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., promised the military base funding would be provided in a $100 billion-plus Iraq war funding bill expected to advance next month -- though GOP critics say such a manuever would amount to budgetary trick that would use the Iraq funding bill to get around funding limits.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., took to the floor Tuesday to criticize Democrats for failing to fund a $30 million program he authored to test newborns for the AIDS virus. But the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors opposed Coburn's amendment since it would cut funding in other AIDS prevention programs. In addition, no states presently meet the eligibility criteria for the newborn AIDS testing grants.
The bill is free of congressional "earmarks" -- the projects lawmakers like to slip into spending bills, such as grants for local governments, homestate universities, hospitals and roads. Such projects exploded in number under Republican control of Congress over the last 12 years.