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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Mostly Senate Democrats Keep Pork from Questionable Lobbyists in Bill

Mar 4, 11:06 PM EST
Senate votes to preserve earmarks in spending bill
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Senate Democrats on Wednesday preserved pet projects sought by a lobbying firm under federal investigation and tried to nail down support for big domestic spending increases in hopes of passing a wrap-up budget bill by week's end. Democrats defeated, by a 52-43 vote, an amendment to strip 13 projects that the PMA Group has pressed for. The firm, now disbanded, is accused of illegally using straw donors to funnel campaign cash to lawmakers.

At the same time, Democrats sought a few GOP votes for the $410 billion bill after two Democrats came out against it over the cost and two more threatened to withhold support over changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Democrats and their allies control 58 seats in the Senate, but 60 votes will be needed to close debate and free the measure so President Barack Obama can sign it. Democrats probably will need votes from perhaps five or six Republicans if the measure is to pass Thursday night or Friday.

Democratic leaders were cautiously optimistic Wednesday night they could do just that. Passage would allow lawmakers in both parties to get the thousands of pet projects they crave and award above-inflation budget increases for education, nutrition programs, transportation and foreign aid.

The spending bill wraps together the budgets for 12 Cabinet departments and other agencies. 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.

The White House promises Obama will sign the bill despite unhappiness over the 8,000 or so homestate pet projects.

Democrats Evan Bayh of Indiana and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin said they will vote against the bill; both urged Obama to veto it.

"There's just a disconnect between what people are having to go through in their daily lives - tightening their belts, economizing where they can - and what they see the government is doing," Bayh said in an interview. "I just think it's tone deaf and, substantively, we do need to get the deficit under control."

Democratic leaders appeared to be holding onto other Democrats, and some GOP leaders acknowledged that the bill is going to pick up GOP votes that would prove critical.

"I just don't know whether we have enough votes to stop it," said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., the No. 3 GOP leader.

The measure contains budget increases, on average, of 8 percent for the domestic agencies it covers, far more than they received under the Bush administration.

Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Bill Nelson of Florida are considering whether to oppose the legislation because it would ease rules on travel to Cuba and make it easier for Cuba to pay for imported food and medicine.

The House passed the bill last week, and Senate Democratic leaders want to follow suit by Friday. That's when a temporary law that keeps the government in business, mostly at 2008 levels, runs out. The bill needs to be enacted by midnight on Friday - or a stopgap bill must be passed in its place - to avoid a shutdown of most domestic agencies.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., worked into overdrive to keep the bill free of floor amendments that would force the measure into negotiations with the House, delay enactment or possibly kill the measure outright.

That meant a difficult vote on an amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to kill 13 "earmarks" requested by lawmakers for projects sought by the PMA Group. The Justice Department is investigating whether the company reimbursed some employees for campaign contributions to members of Congress who requested such projects.

PMA is a classic example of the "pay to play" style that has brought discredit to the earmarking process. The firm charged big fees to help companies and universities negotiate the earmark process and awarded lawmakers who sponsored pet projects such as Reps. John Murtha, D-Pa., and Peter Visclosky, D-Ind., many thousands of dollars in campaign cash.

"The Senate decided to defend business as usual at the earmark favor factory," Coburn said after the vote.

Reid said lawmakers, not lobbyists, are responsible for every earmark in the sprawling measure and that they are willing to be held accountable under recent rules requiring greater transparency in the earmarking process.

The only Republicans so far to announce support for the bill are Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the Appropriations Committee's top Republican; Richard Shelby of Alabama; and Olympia Snowe of Maine. Several other Republicans have said they may support it, including Sens. Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

The Cuban provision cited by Menendez and Nelson would restore travel rules permitting people to visit relatives in Cuba once every 12 months. President George W. Bush imposed rules in 2004 that limited travel to just two weeks every three years and confined visits to immediate family members.

The bill also would lift restrictions on financing imports of U.S. food and medicine into Cuba and effectively reverse Bush administration rules requiring "cash-in-advance" payment


My Thoughts

I am glad to see some Dems like Evan Bayh come to oppose the ridiculous earmarks, but I am disheartened to see some Republicans leaning toward it.

The bill also includes controversial provisions that would make it easier to travel to and trade with Cuba.

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