Democrats Brace for Spending Bill Showdown

The Senate passed a sweeping energy bill that will raise mileage standards for the first time in 30 years. But Democrats in Congress have been forced to compromise, and they still face a showdown over an omnibus spending bill to keep the government running.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Congress earned some bragging rights this week as the Senate passed a massive farm bill and a sweeping energy bill that will raise gas mileage standards for the first time in 30 years. But it has yet to pass a huge spending bill to keep government running. And one could argue that despite those victories, the majority of the Democrats have been taking it on the chin.

NPR's Brian Naylor joins us.

And let's begin with that farm bill. It seems to have something for everyone.

BRIAN NAYLOR: This is a rare island of bipartisanship in a very polarized Congress - the farm bill. As always in these bills, most of the money for the ag part goes to the commodity growers - the corn, wheat and the rice growers. And there were efforts to pare back some of these and tighten eligibility. And they did trim things back but not very much. The biggest piece of the farm bill actually funds the food stamp program, and that will get a $4 billion increase over five years.

Now, the House passed its own bill and the president is threatening a veto because there's not enough trimming of subsidies. But for right now, everyone is happy to declare victory and move on and leave the fight over farm subsidies for next year.

SIMON: The Senate also passed an energy bill, and that seems headed for the president. What's in the energy bill and how did they work it out?

NAYLOR: The big news in the energy bill is that the gas mileage standards for cars and trucks will rise to 35 miles per gallon; that's a 40 percent increase over where we are now. And that's something Democrats should be quite proud of. But there are other parts of the bill or would-be parts of the bill that Democrats had to give up on. They wanted to end tens of billions of dollars in tax breaks for big oil companies and require that electric utilities use some renewable fuel sources like wind. And they had to drop all those provisions because of opposition from Senate Republicans and from the president.

SIMONL: Brian, the Democrats in Congress have had to contend with some dissatisfaction from Democrats who brought in land who say that despite the fact they're in the majority they haven't been playing a strong hand and making too many compromises.

NAYLOR: Take a look at the Alternative Minimum Tax, something that will likely come up next week. It's of interest to millions of Americans. The problem is that Democrats in the House wanted to offset the laws in tax revenues with higher taxes elsewhere. But again, Senate Republicans, the White House said that the president would veto it. And so Democrats either have to have to cave in or take the blame for allowing the AMT to hit middle-income taxpayers.

And that's a common criticism being leveled at Democrats these days; that they've had to give in to the president and minority Republicans over and over again especially perhaps on funding for the war in Iraq.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked about it at a news conference the other day.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; Speaker of the House): I will never say we're not going to stake out the best claim we can make and then negotiate from there rather than going to the law with a common denominator. I don't call that caving. Their grassroots are justifiably disappointed and I am, too, that we could not do something to end this war.

NAYLOR: Now remember, Scott, that while Republicans are in the minority, in the Senate, they actually have a majority standing with the president on Iraq because of independent Joseph Lieberman. Plus, there's four Senate Democrats out running for president and there's the Senate rules that allow the minority to block just about anything with 41 votes, and it's something that Republicans have been very aggressive and successful at.

SIMON: Brian, is a government shutdown still a possibility as we roll into an election year?

NAYLOR: I doubt it. No one, least of all congressional Democrats, wants to get blamed for a government shutdown. So it looks like the Democrats will probably give the president about $70 billion without strings attached for the war in Iraq, go home, regroup, and come up with a new strategy for next year.

SIMON: NPR's Brian Naylor. Thank you.

NAYLOR: Thank you, Scott.

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