NRCC - With Eye on Campaigns, House Passes a Budget

With Eye on Campaigns, House Passes a Budget
New York Times
By Carl Hulse and Robert Pear
March 14, 2008

WASHINGTON — The House passed a $3 trillion Democratic spending plan Thursday as Congress engaged in a day of budget theater that had as much to do with the political bottom line as federal fiscal policy.

With three presidential candidates on hand, the Senate headed toward a final budget vote as well after easily dismissing a politically charged plan to ban spending for one year on pet projects sought by lawmakers.

Both parties seized on the annual debate over the spending blueprint as a way to shape the 2008 campaign dialogue and try to force the White House contenders into embarrassing votes or to build opposition to their policy ideas.

“There is a lot of jockeying going on,” acknowledged Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who is a close ally of Senator John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

The House voted 212-207 to approve the plan developed by Democrats, which would increase spending on domestic programs like education, health care, veterans benefits and new energy technology while allowing some tax cuts pushed by President Bush to expire in two years.

“This budget charts a new direction for America,” said Representative John M. Spratt Jr., Democrat of South Carolina and chairman of the Budget Committee. “In returning to balance and funding critical priorities, it strengthens our economy and makes America safer.”

The House defeated a Republican alternative that would have slowed spending on Medicare and other entitlement programs, permanently extended the tax cuts, invested more in military spending and put a one-year freeze on the Congressional pet projects known as earmarks.

Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the senior Republican on the House Budget Committee, acknowledged that “earmarks proliferated on the Republican watch” in the previous decade. Indeed, Mr. Ryan said: “Both parties are guilty. That’s why we should have a moratorium.”

As the House sought to plow through work before a two-week break, its members agreed to convene in a rare closed session to privately discuss the administration’s terrorist surveillance program before a vote Friday on a Democratic measure on the eavesdropping that President Bush opposes.

In the Senate, Mr. McCain, eager to cast a symbolic vote against earmarks, swooped in for the all-day budget vote-a-thon as did his prospective Democratic presidential rivals, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois. The two Democrats, who also backed the earmark restriction, took time for a private conversation on the floor as they and their colleagues milled about for hours while dozens of votes were taken.

But their colleagues demonstrated that they were far from ready to forego earmarks and the moratorium proposal fell a whopping 31 votes short of the 60 it needed to clear a procedural hurdle. Forty-five Democrats and 25 Republicans joined an independent in blocking the plan on a 71-29 vote.

“We found out tonight that there is only place in American that doesn’t get it about wasteful, earmark pork-barrel spending,” Mr. McCain said after the vote as he took on members of both parties for rejecting the ban.

The two budgets, which have to be reconciled for a final vote later this spring, are nonbinding and represent no formal action on either spending or taxes. But a final budget serves as the framework for later spending and tax decisions and as a policy manifesto for the majority party.

Senate Democrats sought to quickly take the topic of tax cuts off the table. By a 99-1 vote, the Senate extended elements of Mr. Bush’s cuts that apply mainly to the middle class, like the $1,000 child tax credit. But a proposal by Mr. Graham to make a similar pledge on lower rates for capital gains and stock dividends was defeated, with Senators Clinton and Obama among those opposing it.

Mr. McCain, who once opposed the tax cuts, sided with Mr. Graham. “The one thing we should not do, under any circumstances given our present economy, is to raise taxes on American workers who are already struggling to put food on their tables and gas in their cars,” Mr. McCain said.

Mr. Obama had a different view.

“The notion that we would pile up more mounds of debt, literally borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars to pay for tax breaks for people who don’t need them and weren’t even asking for them I think is unfortunate,” he told reporters Thursday. “I think it’s an example of the kinds of flawed fiscal policies that have gotten us in such a hole under this administration and a Republican Congress.”

The margins on the major votes were close, and Vice President Dick Cheney was called in to break an early tie. Also on hand was Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the frail 90-year-old lawmaker who had been absent for weeks but registered his position on early votes with a pronounced “yes” or “no.”

Within hours of the House vote, the National Republican Congressional Committee was issuing news releases aimed at three dozen Democrats, accusing them of backing a historic tax increase through their support for the budget.

But Democrats said they were only setting the stage for eliminating tax breaks for the affluent. Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California, said it was appropriate “to eliminate tax giveaways to the richest people in America” to generate more money for domestic programs that have been shortchanged.

In the Senate, Democrats and Republicans offered dueling amendments over the estate tax and the alternative minimum tax.

The hour-long secret session approved by the House to discuss the terrorist surveillance program raised concerns among some Democrats who questioned its appropriateness and necessity. The last one was 25 years ago.

“It is a very, very serious matter when we do the public’s business in secret,” said Representative Lloyd Doggett, Democrat of Texas.

Jeff Zeleny contributed reporting.