March 11, 2009 12:48 am

Senate approves $410bn spending bill

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The US Congress gave its final approval on Tuesday to a $410bn omnibus spending bill to fund government activities until the end of September after Democrats prevailed in a week-long struggle to round up the necessary votes.

After a series of disputes that took the Senate leadership by surprise on issues ranging from Congressional pay to “earmarks” inserted by individual legislators, the chamber supported the bill. It represents an 8 per cent increase in spending over last year’s levels and was passed by 62 votes to 35, including the votes of eight Republican senators.

The measure is intended to keep government functioning until the end of the fiscal year and is distinct from President Barack Obama’s much more ambitious proposed 10-year budget, which has yet to be submitted to Congress.

On Tuesday the White House sought to distance Mr Obama from the omnibus bill, while repeating that he intended to sign it as soon as it reaches its desk.

“This is necessary to continue funding government,” said Robert Gibbs, White House spokesman. “It represents last year’s business,” he said, adding that Mr Obama will sign the legislation though “it’s not perfect”.

Republicans, notably Senator John McCain, the defeated candidate in last year’s election, have attacked the president over the bill which, despite Mr Obama’s criticism of “earmarks”, contains money for thousands of special projects. These include $190,000 for the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, in Cody, Wyoming, $143,000 for the Las Vegas Natural History Museum and $238,000 for the Polynesian Voyaging Society in Honolulu.

Mr McCain, who failed to win sufficient support for an amendment to hold spending at last year’s levels, had called on Mr Obama to veto the 1,132 page legislation, posting a long list of earmarks in the bill on Twitter in his push to discredit it. “It seems like I’m angry, it’s because I am,” he said last week.

But Democrats contended that Republicans – including the party’s leadership – had been responsible for about 40 per cent of the earmarks in the measure.

Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, said the overall increase in spending was necessary to overcome shortfalls during the administration of former president George W Bush. “The agencies of our government have been so underfunded and under-resourced during the Bush years that these agencies need this money so they can function properly,” he said.

Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, added that the bill rejected “the deep cuts affecting our children, our workers, and our economy that President Bush proposed.”

Last week Mr Reid failed to bring the Senate version of the bill to a vote after some Republicans who supported the legislation demanded that their colleagues be given a chance to offer amendments.

But on Tuesday, with stopgap government financing running out, Democrats defeated all the proposed amendments to the measure, which had already been approved by the House of Representatives. The success of any amendments would have required further legislative votes.

One of the amendments backed by Republicans but defeated in the Senate had sought to put the Democrats in a political bind by requiring politicians to vote each year on whether they would get a pay rise, as opposed to the current system of automatic cost of living increases.

“In the midst of a serious economic downturn, the Senate had a chance to show it could impose the same kind of restraint on itself that millions of American are being forced to impose on themselves at the moment,” said Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader. “The bill costs far too much for a government that should be watching every dime.”

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