Ominous Omnibus Bill

The Senate continued arguments yesterday on the Omnibus budget bill amid bipartisan pessimism. Both parties essentially lose on the controversial year end federal funding because a vote for or against the bill leaves each without the things they hoped for. 

At a bloggers telephone meeting Tuesday, Sen. Tom Coburn seemed resigned (and a bit cynical) when he provided updates on the status of the voting. He said the earmarks in the bill were “atrocious” and Republicans have been “pretty much blocked out” in getting what they want.

He rattled off several of the outrageous earmarks packed into the bill including $700,000 for a bike trail, $200,000 for a Louis Armstrong Museum and $213,000 for a fruit fly research center in France.

The bill moved through the House Monday with two new amendments, including a 253-154 vote providing $484.7 billion in emergency spending for 11 appropriations bills not yet passed. The second amendment was a 206-201 vote to grant $31 billion, mostly for war needs in Afghanistan.

However, that did not including funding for troops in Iraq so that issue was taken up in the Senate.

“Once Congress starts picking and choosing which troops we support and which troops we don’t…the federal government is heading in a bad direction,” said House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, who joined the meeting with a 2 ft. stack of the 3,417 page bill sitting to his right.

There were three amendments up for a vote, including one from Sen. Mitch McConnell which would strip out the House provisions on war funding and substitute a no-strings-attached $70 billion for troop funding in Iraq and Afghanistan. The others, both rejected in previous votes, came from Sen. Carl Levin and Sen. Russ Feingold, both marked with withdrawal language. However, Tuesday evening 71 Senators voted against the Feingold resolution for the fourth time and the Levin amendment failed as well.

“Let’s make them vote again and again, so that they have to go back home and explain why they keep voting to keep our troops in Iraq,” said Feingold in an October op/ed.

Senate sources say the Feingold and Levin amendments were “unacceptable to the White House” and that they are just a “political showboat on amendments they know they are going to lose.” 

Late Tuesday night, Republicans were appeased when the McConnell amendment, which would replace the $31 billion funding for Afghanistan with $70 billion for troop funding in Iraq as well, was passed. It must now return to the House for final vote.

The Heritage Foundation created a web page to inform the public about the bill. According to their list, the bill would cut funding for and delay necessary building on the border fence, provide $53 million for energy-related assistance to North Korea and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) earmarked $37,000 for “Weed Management” in Nevada, among thousands of other special interest projects that will be unaccounted for until next year.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), head of the House Republican Study Committee, said there is “no such thing as a good omnibus” but it would be “very difficult” to vote for a bill that denies funding the troops in Iraq.

“Elections have consequences and the bad guys won,” said Hensarling.

The Democrats chopped the bill down from their original $22 billion over-budget proposal to land closer to the President’s number of $933 billion, but it still contains 8-9,000 earmarks.

Some Republicans are looking at this positively, noting that the Democrats were forced to compromise their number.

Lawmakers had less than 24 hours to review the telephone book-sized bill before voting.  They are still trying to make it home for Christmas break.

“The biggest hole in this product is that Democrats in the House still wouldn’t meet….priorities…to fund the troops,” said Blunt.

Hensarling, who claimed he has voted against every omnibus bill “whether Republican or Democrat,” said “most Republicans will vote yes” because the troops need funding.

Senate sources say emergency war funding and the omnibus itself would be considered in two separate parts in the Senate but according to Larry Hart, director of government relations at the American Conservative Union, this is a “sham.”

“It’s my view that this procedure is a political kabuki dance designed to confuse people so they will not understand what is happening,” said Hart. “Republicans who vote for the bill are doing so because they like the bill and like the earmarks, regardless of what they put out in news releases.”

Ultimately, members had to vote for the bill in order to achieve Iraq funding and the President said he will sign as long as that funding is attached. However, Hart said the process includes a lot of “pretending.” For example, the Democrats are pretending to meet the President’s budget request and the President is pretending the request has been met, when the Labor-HHS bill being voted on is $4 billion over the president’s budget and the HUD bill is $1.4 billion over the request. 

Though lawmakers I spoke with thought the bill would pass, a continuing resolution was still on the table. When asked if a CR was possible, Blunt said “the moment has passed”, though he had “spent months thinking a CR was the best option.”

He mentioned that a CR would be the “worst possible end for Democrats” who have “spent more time in Washington…and produced less than any Congress in decades.”

But, one Republican aide said a CR was "not likely" at this point.  

"The only chance of a CR is if the McConnell amendment fails and troop funding is not added to the defense spending part of the deal," said the source. "If that were to happen, the President would veto the bill and Congress would have to pass a CR to continue government operations."

Blunt said the Democrats were boasting most about four primary things in the budget bill: new fuel efficiency standards, higher education funding, bigger pell grants and a minimum wage increase.

The bill is expected to receive a final vote in the House today and lawmakers can then retreat for Christmas.