Bill, Loaded With Earmarks, Sent To Obama

Congress has managed to avoid a government shutdown. The Senate Tuesday night sent the president a $410 billion spending bill to keep domestic agencies and the State Department running for the rest of the fiscal year. The measure is six months late and $30 billion over last year's budget.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. Six months late and $30 billion over budget, Congress has approved a spending plan for the fiscal year that's half over. It's not a pretty story, though it does you tell you something about American politics in transition.

INSKEEP: In a moment, we'll profile one of the players in the debate, a man who left Congress to become President Obama's chief of staff. We begin with the fight over a spending bill left over from before the last election. NPR's Audie Cornish reports from the Capitol.

AUDIE CORNISH: Lawmakers had until midnight tonight to pass the omnibus funding bill. It was once described as tying up loose ends. But it turned into a partisan skirmish over earmarks and past policies. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Democrats dug in their heels on the bill's increased spending.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): Agencies of our government have been so underfunded and under resourced during the Bush years that these agencies need this money so that they can function properly.

CORNISH: Republican leader Mitch McConnell and the GOP were just as adamant that funding levels stay put.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Senate Minority Leader): Our preference would be to defeat this bill, put it back together at last year's level, and not continue the spending spree that we're currently engaged in.

CORNISH: And Republican senators insisted on amendments on their own spending in policy priorities: forbid earmarks, extend Washington DC's school voucher program, change the funding formula for anti-AIDS programs. None of these suggestions survived. But one amendment did give some Democrats pause. It was Louisiana Senator David Vitter's proposal to repeal automatic pay increases for members of Congress.

Senator DAVID VITTER (Republican, Louisiana): It's wrong, and the system that has these pay raises on autopilot is wrong. We should have full open debates and votes on this. That's what my amendment would ensure.

CORNISH: It was defeated after Senator Reid introduced a similar stand-alone bill as an alternative. That gave cover to lawmakers who didn't want to be accused of approving automatic pay increases, especially at a time when eight percent of American workers are unemployed. With every one of their amendments shot down, Republicans complain that Democrats were shutting them out. But Senator Reid said it's the GOP that's become the party of no.

Sen. REID: There are things that we have to work together on a bipartisan basis to get done. You got this budget coming up soon. We have to do something to fix the broken banking system. You know, these things just have to be done, and we should work together to get them done. I just believe that saying no to everything is not a way to move this country forward.

CORNISH: A White House spokesman says the president will sign the bill, even though it's loaded with the kind of earmarks President Obama campaigned against. White House officials say the president will soon propose new rules on earmarks for future spending bills.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, the Capitol.

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