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Senate puts off vote on huge spending bill

Senate Republicans, demanding the right to try to change a huge spending bill, forced Democrats on Thursday night to put off a final vote on the measure until next week.

world Updated: Mar 06, 2009 09:34 IST

Senate Republicans, demanding the right to try to change a huge spending bill, forced Democrats on Thursday night to put off a final vote on the measure until next week. The surprise development will force Congress to pass a stopgap funding bill to avoid a partial shutdown of the government. Republicans have blasted the $410 billion measure as too costly. But the reason for Republican unity in advance of a key procedural vote was that Democrats had not allowed them enough opportunities to offer amendments.

Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, canceled the vote, saying he was one vote short of the 60 senators needed to close debate and free the bill for President Barack Obama's signature. By a 52-42 vote on Thursday, Democrats cleared the way for the Obama administration to reverse a rule issued late in the Bush administration reverse that says greenhouse gases cannot be restricted in an effort 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. Democrats and their allies control 58 seats, though at least a handful of Democrats oppose the measure over its cost or changes in US policy toward Cuba. That meant Democrats needed five or six Republican votes to advance the bill.

None of the Republican amendments is expected to pass, but votes on perhaps a dozen are now slated for Monday night, Reid said. The huge, 1,132-page spending bill awards big increases to domestic programs and is stuffed with pet projects sought by lawmakers in both parties. The measure has an extraordinary reach, wrapping together nine spending bills to fund the annual operating budgets of every Cabinet department except for Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs.

Once considered a relatively bipartisan measure, the measure has come under attack from Republicans _ and a handful of Democrats _ who say it is bloated and filled with wasteful, pork-barrel projects.

The measure was written mostly over the course of last year, before projected deficits quadrupled and Obama's economic recovery bill left many of the same spending accounts swimming in cash. And, to the embarrassment of Obama _ who promised during last year's campaign to force Congress to curb its pork-barrel ways _ the bill contains 7,991 pet projects totaling $5.5 billion, according to calculations by the Republican staff of the House Appropriations Committee.

Sen. John McCain, Obama's Republican opponent in last fall's presidential campaign, called the measure "a swollen, wasteful, egregious example of out-of-control spending" and again criticized Obama for pledging to sign the measure despite his earlier promises on earmarks.

"It doesn't sound like he's willing to use his veto pen to back up his vow," McCain said.

The earmarks run the gamut. There's $190,000 for the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, $238,000 to fund a deep-sea voyaging program for native Hawaiian youth, agricultural research projects, and grants to local police departments, among many others. While earmarks have come under attack from conservative watchdog groups and media commentators, lawmakers in both parties seek them, arguing they best know the needs of their states and home districts. Under a long-standing tradition, Republicans get about 40 per cent of them since they are the minority party.

The big increases _ among them a 21 per cent boost for a popular program that feeds infants and poor women and a 10 per cent hike for housing vouchers for the poor _ represent a clear win for Democrats who spent most of the past decade battling with President George W Bush over money for domestic programs.

Generous above-inflation increases are spread throughout, including a $2.4 billion, 13 per cent increase for the Agriculture Department and a 10 per cent increase for the money-losing Amtrak passenger rail system.