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.
The conference report's "compromise" Labor-HHS bill at $151 billion was actually more expensive than either the House or Senate version. It contains a $1 million earmark for a Thomas Daschle Center for Public Service and Representative Democracy at South Dakota State University to honor the former Senate majority leader who was defeated for re-election in 2004. Sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Robert Byrd and Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Daschle Center was one of nine earmarks "airdropped" into the final version by the Senate-House conference without being passed by either the Senate or House. Silently removed from the bill by the conference report was the prohibition, passed by the Senate in a rare defeat for earmarkers, against spending $1 million for the Woodstock "hippies" museum in Bethel, N.Y.
In the past, if a point of order against an appropriations bill was affirmed, the whole bill would die. But a new rule pressed by Democrats this year made it possible to split veterans spending away from Labor-HHS without killing the bill. All 46 Republican senators present voted to sustain the point of order, so that the Senate fell 13 votes short of the 60 votes needed to keep the two bills together.
Consequently, the Senate last Tuesday again had to pass the bloated Labor-HHS bill. It did, but by a 56 to 37 margin, short of a veto-proof majority, as 19 Republican senators changed their affirmative vote from the last time they considered this bill. In an extraordinary outburst against the 19 switchers, Majority Leader Reid called them "sheep and chickens" who had "chosen to defend a failed president." In truth, he had just lost an audacious ploy.