Funding vote to test Obama’s resolve on ending earmarks

Senate Democrats are moving aggressively to pass a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill that will test President Obama’s resolve on opposing congressional earmarks.

The 1,924-page bill would set aside funding for thousands of earmarks, according to Senate aides tracking the legislation.

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Obama last month called for an earmark ban, saying in one of his weekly addresses that “we can’t afford” these items inserted by members of Congress “without adequate review.”

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) on Tuesday called on Obama to intervene in the Senate’s deliberations.

“It would be helpful if he said, ‘Don’t pass a bunch of earmarks,’ ” said Coburn, who asserted that the GOP will not have adequate time to review the massive bill.

Senate appropriators explicitly defied Obama by including $450 million for a second F-35 Joint Strike Fighter engine made by General Electric and Rolls-Royce.

Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates say the engine is not needed and have repeatedly invoked a veto threat.

A Senate Democratic aide, however, noted the earmarks, taken together, account for less than 1 percent of the total spending package, which is $19 billion more than current funding levels.

Taxpayers for Common Sense, a non-partisan group that tracks federal spending, said Tuesday evening it had found 6,600 earmarks worth $8 billion — $2 billion less than the amount spent on earmarks in the fiscal year 2010 spending bills.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), one of the few Senate Democrats who does not request earmarks, said the omnibus would present Obama with a tough choice if it passes Congress.

“He know the abuses that occur with earmarking; he knows that it’s arbitrary and we’re not in a time where we should spending money arbitrarily,” said McCaskill. But she added that the rest of the budget is being “held hostage to the earmarks.”

A proposal by McCaskill and Coburn to ban earmarks failed a test vote last month, even after gaining some momentum once Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) flipped on the issue and offered his support.

The omnibus would provide $220 million over current spending levels to increase airport security, funding 800 explosives trace detection units. It would implement $10.2 billion in cuts to military programs that have been terminated or deemed wasteful. It would provide an $840 million funding increase for Head Start, the federal preschool program for low-income children.

Senate appropriators have allotted $667.7 billion in new discretionary spending for the Pentagon — $10.3 billion below the administration’s request — and $157.8 billion in war spending.

The legislation would also include more than $1 billion to implement the sweeping healthcare reform bill Congress passed in March, as well as funds for the IRS to hire more agents, according to GOP aides who reviewed the bill.

The healthcare money includes a $176 million increase for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to implement an expansion of Medicaid and cuts to the Medicare Advantage program, which Democrats deemed wasteful.

The bill sets federal discretionary spending for fiscal 2011 at $1.108 trillion, a level suggested by McCaskill and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) praised the legislation.

“The people on the Appropriations Committee worked very, very hard. I think they have a very good piece of legislation,” he told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “And I think we’re going to move forward with that, the omnibus.”

Reid’s spokesman, Jim Manley, said Reid could bring the New START nuclear arms treaty to the floor as soon as Wednesday and plans to consider the omnibus spending bill simultaneously with the treaty. The treaty and spending measures would be put on separate parallel tracks.

A senior Democratic aide said there is a group of six to eight Senate Republicans who may vote for the omnibus, but Democratic leaders won’t know for sure until lawmakers have had more time to review the package.

Possible GOP supporters include Sens. Thad Cochran (Miss.), Bob Bennett (Utah), Kit Bond (Mo.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), George Voinovich (Ohio) and Susan Collins (Maine). All are members of the Appropriations Committee.

Bennett said Tuesday afternoon he would vote for the package even though the inclusion of earmarks may cause some of his GOP colleagues to withhold support.

“It will be tough for some, but not for me,” he said.

Bond, Cochran, Collins and Voinovich said they would consider voting for the package but wanted more time to review it.

“I hope to be able to vote for one,” Bond said of the omnibus. “We’ve got to look what’s in it.

“I’m anxious to see it,” he added.

Rob Dillon, minority spokesman for the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Murkowski, the ranking member, is disturbed that the Senate bill, like the House continuing resolution, includes a 90-day delay in offshore oil and gas permits but that she might still vote for the bill

“She is still making up her mind,” he said.

McConnell, meanwhile, is strongly against the omnibus. He said the Senate should have considered each of the 12 appropriations bills separately over the course of the year.

“It is completely and totally inappropriate to wrap all of this up into a 2,000-page bill and try to pass it the week before Christmas,” he said.

McConnell said the effort to speed the omnibus through Congress was reminiscent of the Senate’s Christmas Eve vote on healthcare reform last year.

The GOP leader has called for a short-term continuing resolution that would fund government at current levels until next February; the House passed a CR through September.

Republican senators from across the political spectrum voiced strong opposition to it during a private lunch meeting Tuesday, according to a GOP source familiar with the meeting. Only a few senators attempted to defend the bill during the heated lunchtime meeting.

Sen. John Thune (S.D.), chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, blasted the proposal.

“This bill is loaded up with pork projects and should not get a vote. Congress should listen to the American people and stop this reckless spending,” Thune said in a statement.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who supported Tea Party-backed candidates in the 2010 election, urged his colleagues to oppose the omnibus.

“All of us know it’s really bad for our party to pass an omnibus with earmarks right now,” he said.

Roxana Tiron and Erik Wasson contributed to this report.