WASHINGTON -- The ploy had been hatched behind closed doors by Democratic leaders of both houses. A pork-laden appropriations bill filled with $1 billion in earmarks would combine with veto-proof spending for veterans. Instead, the two measures were decoupled in a Senate party-line vote last Tuesday.
The Democratic scheme to present President George W. Bush with a bill that he could not veto seemed a clever strategy, but it was based on presumption of Republican ignorance and cowardice. As late as last Monday, savvy GOP Senate staffers predicted Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's decoupling motion would fail. In fact, she did not lose a Republican senator, as Democrats fell far short of the 60 votes needed to keep the two bills together.
During a confusing week on Capitol Hill, lawmakers engaged in games difficult for insiders to understand and incomprehensible for ordinary voters. As the first Congress controlled by Democrats since 1994 nears the end of its first year, the desire to bring home the bacon trumped concern over the falling dollar, the crisis in Pakistan and the continuing conflict in Iraq.
The reason that not one of 13 appropriations bills had reached the president's desk was Bush's threat to veto at least 10 of them. Doubting their ability to override these vetoes, Democratic leaders conjured up combined packages that Bush would dare not veto. The earmark-heavy appropriations bill for the Labor and Health and Human Services (HHS) departments would be joined with the Defense bill, which funds Iraq, and with Military Construction, which contains money for veterans.
The Defense component was quickly removed after protests by Rep. John Murtha, influential chairman of the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee. But plans for a Labor-HHS merger with Military Construction went forward. A stand-alone bill containing veterans money had passed the House, 409 to 2, on June 15, and a similar measure got Senate approval, 92 to 1, on Sept. 6 -- measures Bush would sign. But Democrats held off final passage so they could meld it with Labor-HHS, which they did in last week's Senate-House conference report.
At the same time, the pork content of Labor-HHS grew. Citizens Against Government Waste found 2,274 earmarks in the bill worth $1 billion. They include $1.5 million for the AFL-CIO Working for America Institute and $2.2 million for the AFL-CIO Appalachian Council. Democratic Sens. Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad, North Dakota's two professed budget balancers, got $1 million for Bismarck State College. Sen. Arlen Specter, the Senate Labor-HHS Appropriations subcommittee's ranking Republican, procured $882,025 for "abstinence education" in his home state of Pennsylvania.