Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers, including many Republicans, voted to spend more than half-a-trillion dollars last month -- signaling what's in store for taxpayers if Democrats win additional seats in Congress this November.

The spending spree included a whopping $300 billion farm bill, loaded with subsidies for millionaire farmers and pork-filled provisions that won the support of 100 House Republicans, who voted to override President Bush's veto.

The squandering also includes a fat-filled $250 billion supplemental bill for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, plus $52 billion in tuition benefits for veterans and other domestic expenditures that passed the Senate by a veto-proof 75-to-22 vote margin with the help of 25 Republicans.

The Democrats were practicing their typical tax-and-spend, pork-barrel politics, but the spectacle of so-called conservative Republicans feeding at the trough along with them has reignited anger in the GOP at a time when it can ill afford any party defections in the fall.

"The grassroots reaction to the farm bill is very strong," said Brian Riedl, chief budget analyst at the Heritage Foundation. "They're talking like Barry Goldwater, but voting like LBJ."

The farm bill, which became law over Bush's objections, has stirred up a hornet's nest among taxpayer activists and anti-deficit groups fighting the sharp rise in government spending that has leaped from $2 trillion in 2002 to more than $3 trillion now.

"Congress should be embarrassed when such a large majority votes to throw taxpayer dollars at millionaire farmers, increase subsidy payments at a time of record-high crop prices -- and give special tax breaks to horse racers," said Club for Growth president Pat Toomey.

Interviews with veteran spending critics expressed similar disgust and a deep sense of frustration over the increasing size of spending bills that are ballooning the federal debt.

"There is very little hope when you can't curtail the benefits going to well-off farmers who are benefiting from high crop prices generated in part by government policies in the form of ethanol subsidies," said Robert Reischauer, president of the Urban Institute and former director of the Congressional Budget Office. "They're taking our money from both our pockets," he told me.

Bush had asked for a clean war-funding bill and has threatened to veto the supplemental bill if it contains the additional discretionary spending the Democrats have stuffed into it.

Veterans groups, among the GOP's strongest supporters, are fiercely lobbying for increased GI college-tuition benefits -- GOP lawmakers had offered a less expensive version, to no avail.

That posed a problem for Republicans facing tough re-election races in November in the midst of a war and returning veterans this fall. It has also become an issue in the presidential race as well.

Barack Obama slammed John McCain last week for opposing the GI-aid provision, saying, "I cannot understand why ... he believes it is too generous to our veterans."

McCain shot back that he did not need "any lectures" from someone "who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform."

But it is the farm bill that has become the focus of GOP rebellion this year, and former House Republican majority leader Dick Armey of Texas said, "It's going to get worse before it gets better.

"I'm hearing from Republicans now who tell me, 'These guys just don't get it. So why should we turn out for them?'" Armey told me. "I've been hearing the phrase, 'There's not a nickel's difference between any of them.' When Republicans are saying that, it hurts us, not the Democrats.

"There is no question in my mind that the behavior and thinking of the Republicans in Congress now is short run, parochial and political. It's don't rock the boat," he said.

As a result, there are signs of a growing resurgence among libertarian voters this year in the wake of Rep. Ron Paul's presidential bid, and Armey fears they will be more mobilized than ever this time.

"The libertarians will hurt us if congressional Republicans abandon small-government conservatism," he warned.

House Republican leader John Boehner has struggled to change the GOP's spendthrift, big-government image after Democrats toppled his party from power in the 2006 elections. And he has been effective in a number of hard-fought battles.

But the full weight of the latest back-to-back big spending bills, and the GOP 100 who voted for the farm bill, has undermined his efforts and hurt his party.

Many conservatives I've talked to say the GOP would be in a better position today if Bush had wielded his veto pen earlier in his presidency.

"The country would have been better off if Bush had been tougher on spending since day one, but it's better late than never," said Riedl.


Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.