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THE NATION

Despite Tough Talk, Congress Opens Wallet

The House OKs about $90 billion for defense and Katrina; senators back more borrowing and set a budget target that's election-friendly.

March 17, 2006|Richard Simon and Joel Havemann | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Underscoring the difficulty of reining in spending in an election year, the House on Thursday approved more money for U.S. military operations and hurricane recovery while the Senate voted to make room for other government costs by raising the federal debt limit.

In another action, the Senate approved a proposed $2.8-trillion annual budget that would boost funding for a number of politically popular domestic programs.

The budget resolution, which provides guidelines for future legislation, includes a new effort to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling, a measure long sought by President Bush that faces major hurdles in the House.

The spending-related votes came days after a parade of potential GOP presidential candidates decried the federal budget deficit and pledged to reduce it.

"Now is the time to reaffirm our roots as the party of fiscal discipline," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) declared last weekend at a GOP gathering in Memphis, Tenn.

But Capitol Hill's political realities paved the way for easy passage of the House bill providing $91.9 billion in emergency spending -- the bulk of it, $67.6 billion, for the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also would funnel an additional $19.2 billion to Gulf Coast communities damaged by Hurricane Katrina last summer.

"Concerns about the deficit and spending are overridden by the urgent issues before us -- supporting our troops and helping hurricane victims," said Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.).

The vote on the bill was 348 to 71; Senate action is expected within several weeks.

Other political realities led to the Senate's narrow approval Thursday of the debt-limit increase and the 2007 budget resolution.

Failure to raise the debt limit would have resulted in the first-ever default on Treasury notes. The Senate's vote allows the government to borrow an additional $781 billion, bringing the ceiling on the national debt to nearly $9 trillion.

The budget resolution, meanwhile, became a vehicle for lawmakers -- including some Republicans facing tough reelection campaigns -- to go on record favoring more spending for education, healthcare and heating-bill subsidies.

Some Republicans in the GOP-controlled Congress were disgruntled by what they viewed as a continuing failure by party leaders to take tougher stances on spending.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), who joined other rank-and-file conservatives in an unsuccessful bid to offset the hurricane aid with budget cuts, said that despite recent rhetoric about the deficit, "at the end of the day, unfortunately, too many people are concerned about the next election, not the next generation."

He was among 19 Republicans (mostly fiscal conservatives) who joined 52 Democrats (mostly critics of the Iraq war) in voting against the spending measure for military operations and hurricane relief.

Referring to the day's accumulation of spending proposals in the Senate budget resolution, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said, "We're not yet ready to face up to the realities of having to make some tough decisions."

But McCain, who like Frist is eyeing a run for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, joined the majority leader in voting for the budget resolution, which passed 51 to 49.

Opposing it were California's senators, Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein.

The bill to raise the debt limit, the fourth such increase under Bush, passed 52 to 48 with Boxer and Feinstein opposing. Democrats portrayed Republicans as lacking fiscal discipline.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said "any objective analysis" would conclude that the White House and the Republican Congress "are the most fiscally irresponsible in the history of our country."

But Democrats joined Republicans in supporting more funding for a number of programs in the budget resolution, which sets targets for spending bills drafted later this year.

The House has yet to write its budget.

Republicans added nearly $1 billion to tighten security at seaports, a response to the political flap over an Arab company's ill-fated attempt to take over operations at port terminals in six U.S. cities.

Added spending proposals became the price for votes favoring the resolution.

"They need my vote to pass this," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who won a $7 billion increase in spending for health and education programs. Specter said the programs had been severely cut in previous years. "We have gone beyond the fat, beyond the muscle and beyond the bone to the marrow," he said.

And Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who is facing a tough reelection campaign this year, helped win $1.3 billion for a popular program that funds community projects.

Congress last year approved a far-reaching bill to trim the growth of federal benefit programs by more than $39 billion in five years.

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