Capping Democratic Spenders

Robert Novak

3/28/2002 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak
WASHINGTON -- Sen. Russell Feingold scored two triumphs last week before Congress began its Easter recess. Fellow Democrats celebrated final passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act. They were not cheering when the Wisconsin maverick interfered with his party's plans for a free hand on federal spending. Feingold's defection from the party line permitted the Senate Budget Committee to approve limited extension of spending caps, which expire at the end of this fiscal year. If he had failed, it would have been next to impossible to add spending caps on the Senate floor. Now, thanks to Feingold, the door is open for strengthened spending limitations. That's not what Democratic political strategists envisioned. In the House last Thursday, Democrats offered no budget but attacked the plan of majority Republicans (which contains spending caps). On the same day, the Senate Budget Committee's first-year chairman -- Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota -- pushed a plan without spending caps. Conrad, who preaches fiscal conservatism, received failing marks from the National Taxpayers Union the last two years (7 percent in 1999, 15 percent in 2000). What's more, he confronts what no previous Budget chairman had to encounter: the intimidating presence of Robert C. Byrd. Never happy with the budget process enacted in 1974 that undermines his beloved Appropriations Committee, Chairman Byrd got himself a Budget Committee seat last year. Byrd went into last Thursday's meeting determined to block spending caps that inhibit his appropriations. The steely determination of the 84-year-old patriarch from West Virginia did not deter Feingold. The 49-year-old Rhodes Scholar and Harvard Law graduate angered Bill Clinton when he voted to call witnesses in the 1999 presidential impeachment trial. Feingold, along with Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, introduced an amendment setting budget caps for the next five years, with a "firewall" separating defense and non-defense spending. Feingold was the only Democrat on the committee supporting the change, and it failed, 11 to 11, because one Republican (Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska) was absent at a previously scheduled event. The Democrats seemed to have dodged a bullet. Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, the committee's senior Republican, introduced a modified amendment covering only one year and eliminating the firewall. Since Feingold had lost his own amendment, would he oppose the Republican alternative? That would be a poor reading of Russ Feingold. What ensued was one of those Capitol Hill mini-dramas that for decades were played out behind closed doors but now are preserved by C-SPAN. Conrad at one point seemed ready to accept Domenici's watered-down amendment. However, Sen. Paul Sarbanes of Maryland, a tough and partisan Democrat, came down hard against it, and that seemed to pull back Conrad. When the roll call reached Feingold, however, he did not hesitate to vote "yes" on the Domenici amendment. That visibly startled the next Democrat in line: Sen. Tim Johnson, a liberal facing a serious challenge for re-election in South Dakota this year. Like other Great Plains Democrats, Johnson talks a more fiscally conservative game than he votes (National Taxpayers Union ratings of 5 percent in 1999, 11 percent in 2000). When Johnson heard Feingold's vote, his eyes and eyebrows moved upward. He had seconds to decide, and he voted "no" against spending caps. The last four Budget Committee Democrats are freshmen. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, who considers himself a moderate, voted "yes." Up next was Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a labor-liberal from Michigan who campaigned in 2000 as a Blue Dog moderate. With two Democratic defections already on record, she voted "yes." The last two committee members -- reflexive liberal Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Jon Corzine of New Jersey -- voted "no." So did Chairman Conrad, voting last. The amendment carried, 13 to 9, in an embarrassing defeat for Conrad. The best guess is that no budget resolution will pass the Senate this year, which means no caps and no restraint on Bob Byrd and his appropriators. Nevertheless, the committee's approval of the Domenici amendment permits the Senate to debate and quite likely vote for spending caps. That problem for the Democratic leadership was caused by Russell Feingold, in the old tradition of Wisconsin and Senate progressives.