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Unease grows in Democratic ranks over $410B spending bill

  • Article by: DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
  • New York Times
  • March 5, 2009 - 9:26 PM

WASHINGTON - The Obama administration has described the $410 billion omnibus spending bill that is needed to finance the government through September as "last year's business." But some Democrats in Congress are voicing increased discomfort with so much government spending these days.

After Sens. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., said they would oppose the measure, Senate Democrats scrambled Thursday to muster the 60 votes required to cut off debate and push the bill to a final vote.

The measure comes five months after Congress approved a $700 billion bailout for the financial system and just weeks after it adopted a $787 billion economic stimulus package.

The bill -- almost certain to be approved with Republican support -- includes more than $7 billion for home-state projects known as earmarks and millions more for lawmakers' congressional offices that make it hard to resist.

Pressure to rein in spending?

But with President Obama's proposed $3.6 trillion budget for the 2010 fiscal year next on the agenda, the unease among some Democrats over the omnibus bill could be a warning to the White House that it will soon face pressure to rein in spending.

Feingold said he was particularly troubled by the more than 8,500 earmarks in the bill. "I generally don't vote for these omnibus bills because of the process of jamming everything together," he said, "and they are always loaded up with this stuff."

Bayh focused his criticism on the steep increase in discretionary spending.

"The omnibus increases discretionary spending by 8 percent of last fiscal year's levels, dwarfing the rate of inflation," he wrote in an op-ed article this week in the Wall Street Journal. "Such increases might be appropriate for a nation flush with cash or unconcerned with fiscal prudence, but America is neither."

He added: "Those who vote for the omnibus this week -- after standing with the president and pledging to slice our deficit in half last week -- jeopardize their credibility."

Feingold and Bayh urged Obama to veto the spending package, but the White House has said Obama will sign it.

'We need to restrain'

The House approved the bill last week 245 to 178. But 20 Democrats voted against it, including such loyal allies of Obama as Rep. Melissa Bean of Illinois.

Several of the Democrats who opposed the measure were from swing states, such as Rep. Baron P. Hill of Indiana. Others, such as the first-term Rep. Walt Minnick of Idaho, represent traditionally Republican districts.

Rep. Harry Mitchell, D-Ariz., said he voted against the measure primarily because it included a sizable increase in financing for Congress itself. "We need to restrain," he said. "You can't just continually go on a binge like this."

He said the legislative branch should serve as a model for other parts of the government and curtail its own spending.

Rep. Frank Kratovil Jr., D-Md., a congressional freshman, said he voted against the omnibus spending bill because it provided neither short-term spending that would help lift the economy nor the long-term fiscal restraint needed to reduce the nation's staggering debt.

"This omnibus package increases spending across the board when now, more than ever, we need a targeted approach," he said after the vote.

In considering Obama's 2010 budget, he called on "colleagues on both sides of the aisle" to "return to the principles of fiscal responsibility."

The Obama administration's spending programs have already come under intense criticism from some Republicans, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona. McCain has criticized the earmarks in the omnibus bill and denounced much of the stimulus plan as wasteful.

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