New Leaders in Congress Show Some Old Tricks

Before they took over the House of Representatives, Democrats promised to run a very different show than Republicans. But as the House takes up the continuing resolution — which will fund most of the federal government through the fiscal year — the new party in power is freezing out the old.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

The federal budget is serious stuff, even if only a few select people can actually decipher it. Today, for example, the House of Representatives passed a spending bill worth more than $463 billion that will fund the government through September.

NPR's Andrea Seabrook attempts to explain the debate while keeping a straight face.

ANDREA SEABROOK: If you're versed in congressional jargon, also called wonkspeak, you had no problem deciphering today's debate. Last year's Republican majority didn't pass the appropriations bill, so they passed a continuing resolution, and now Democrats are extending that CR until end of the fiscal year. The final vote was 286 to 140.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News - okay, okay.

You're probably not from planet Congress and prefer your news in English. So here goes. Last fall, Republican leaders in the House and Senate couldn't work out a deal to pass stacks of legislation to fund most of the federal government. After the election, when Republicans lost the majorities in both chambers, they simply stopped trying to pass those bills. So when Democrats took over this month, Ohio's Marcy Kaptur says, they inherited a bunch of big messes.

Representative MARCY KAPTUR (Democrat, Ohio): And this bill cleans those up and corrects them in a very responsible fashion. If any of our colleagues on the other side want to criticize this package, I ask why didn't they fix it when they had the chance?

SEABROOK: These funding bills were supposed to have been passed by October 1st of last year. Since then, Congress has passed stopgap measures to keep the government from shutting down, and today's bill will extend that stopgap through the end of this fiscal year. Democrats hope to get the train back on the tracks by then.

Debate today centered around two things - whether Democrats did, in fact, strip thousands of earmarks or special projects from the bill - Democrats say they did, Republicans say they didn't - and are Democrats living up to their campaign promise of running a more open house - Democrats say they are. Republicans say they aren't.

Listen to this exchange between two tenured and powerful lawmakers - California Republican David Dreier, complaining about money to fund an indoor rainforest in Iowa and angry at being unable to offer an amendment, and the Democratic Chair of the Appropriations Committee, David Obey, incensed by Dreier's accusations. First, Dreier, the Republican.

Representative DAVID DREIER (Republican, California): We offered 21 amendments, very thoughtful amendments, that would have taken $44.5 million, $44.5 million that is utilized right now for rainforest education in Iowa, and transfer that spending to help provide desperately needed assistance to the war wounded.

Representative DAVID OBEY (Democrat, Wisconsin): We have just heard unmitigated nonsense from the gentleman.

SEABROOK: That's Obey, the Democrat.

Representative OBEY: The gentleman is somehow claiming that we are funding that silly rainforest that your party agreed to two years ago in Iowa. There is not a dollar in this bill for that rainforest. You know it as well as I do. Quit trying to pretend otherwise.

SEABROOK: Well, the truth is that rainforest and thousands of other earmarks are and aren't in the bill. Yes, Democrats completely stripped earmarks from the bill, but they left all the money for those earmarks in it. The end consequence of that is the executive branch agencies will get piles of money with little direction from the Congress on how to spend it. That's got a whole bunch of other members of Congress annoyed, like Tennessee Republican Zach Wamp.

Representative ZACH WAMP (Republican, Tennessee): We're giving them the money. They get to decide how it's spent instead of the elected people. The rest of this fiscal year, I'll be going back to the agency, saying will you please make sure that this program or that program is adequately funded for the balance of this year. That's a bassackwards way to do this.

SEABROOK: Even Obey, the appropriations chairman, lamented this consequence of stripping the earmarks, but, he said, it's the cost of revamping the whole process. And in the end, this giant and messy bill finally clears the decks, making way for consideration of next fiscal year's budget, which by the way, is delivered by the White House to Congress on Monday.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, The Capitol.

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