Congress sends $410B spending bill to Obama

Tuesday, March 10, 2009 | 9:48 p.m. CDT; updated 10:30 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, March 10, 2009

WASHINGTON — Congress has cleared a $410 billion measure to fund the government for President Barack Obama's signature, a bill denounced by most Republicans as an example of reckless spending.

The Senate approved the measure by voice Tuesday after it cleared a key procedural hurdle by a 62-35 vote. Sixty votes were required to shut down debate.

Obama is expected to sign the measure Wednesday to avoid a partial shutdown of the government. But the White House has kept the bill at arm's length, calling it last year's business. Obama is also set to announce steps aimed at curbing the inclusion of lawmakers' pet projects in spending bills.

The bill is chock-full of those pet projects and significant increases in food aid for the poor, energy research and other programs. It was supposed to have been completed last year, but Democrats opted against election-year battles with Republicans and former President George W. Bush.

The measure was a top priority for Democratic leaders, who praised it for numerous increases denied by Bush. It once enjoyed support from Republicans such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

But the bill ran into an unexpected political hailstorm in Congress after Obama's spending-heavy economic stimulus bill and his 2010 budget plan forecasting a $1.8 trillion deficit for the current budget year. And Republicans seized on Obama's willingness to sign a bill packed with lawmakers' pet projects after he assailed them as a candidate.

"If it had not been for the stimulus and the budget proposal it might have been ... noncontroversial," said House Republican leader John Boehner. "The stimulus bill riled an awful lot of people up. ... And then the budget proposal comes out."

Within Democratic ranks, there was relief, not jubilation.

The 1,132-page spending bill has an extraordinary reach, wrapping together nine spending bills to fund foreign aid and the annual operating budgets of every Cabinet department except for Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs.

It also contains numerous policy changes, including shutting down a program allowing Mexican trucking companies to operate beyond U.S.-Mexico border zones, easing rules on Cuban-Americans traveling to the island to visit relatives and allowing quick reversal of Bush administration rules opposed by environmentalists.

In the end, eight Republicans voted with all but three Democrats who were present, to advance the bill.

McConnell did not support the measure, calling it a "missed opportunity" to display fiscal discipline. However, McConnell was himself the sponsor or co-sponsor of $76 million worth of pet projects in the measure, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group.

The big increases — among them a 14 percent boost for a popular program that feeds infants and poor women and a 10 percent increase for housing vouchers for the poor — represent a clear win for Democrats who spent most of the past decade battling with Bush over money for domestic programs.

The measure chips away at several leftover Bush administration policies. It clears the way for the Obama administration to reverse a rule issued late in the Bush administration that says greenhouse gases may not be restricted to protect polar bears from global warming. Another Bush administration rule that reduced the input of federal scientists in endangered species decisions can also be quickly overturned without a lengthy rulemaking process.

The bill passed Tuesday represents about one-third of the budget passed each year by Congress for the operating budgets of Cabinet departments and other agencies. The rest of the budget is made up of benefits programs such as pensions and health insurance programs for the poor and elderly — as well as interest payments on the swelling $11 trillion national debt.

Adding in spending bills passed last year for defense, homeland security and the Veterans Administration — as well as $288.7 billion in appropriated money in the stimulus bill — total appropriations so far for 2009 have reached $1.4 trillion. And that's before the Pentagon submits another $75 billion or so request for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Appropriated spending for 2008 was $1.2 trillion; Obama's budget for next year calls for $1.3 trillion in appropriations.

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