Senate business as usual

Posted: Jun 10, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- As President Bush announced the government's reorganization to combat terrorism, the Senate quietly concluded a charade of business as usual under cover of a national crisis. In the dead of the night, it passed an "emergency" anti-terrorism appropriations bill that in fact was loaded down with extraneous spending. The appropriators like to put bills like this on a fast, closed train, shielded from the public. Republican Sens. John McCain and Phil Gramm battled to slow down and open the runaway express. But scarcely one third of their colleagues were interested. The pork train was delayed just two weeks. George W. Bush faces a dilemma. Because spending unrelated to terrorism never will be removed in a Senate-House conference, he must decide whether to exercise his first veto. If he does, he will be attacked for denying funding for his self-declared war. If he doesn't, the door is open for a year-long spending orgy, unencumbered by any budget resolution with spending caps. While the Republican-controlled House crafted the supplemental bill largely to the president's specifications, Sen. Robert Byrd as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee was oblivious to a mere president's desires. His bill was unveiled to the committee with two hours' notice as Congress prepared for its Memorial Day recess. The 14 Republican appropriators, led by Byrd's sidekick, Sen. Ted Stevens, all voted for the bill. Nobody other than Byrd, Stevens and their staffers knew what was in the bill. Nevertheless, on May 23, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle sought unanimous consent to permit passage -- sight unseen. McCain objected, pointing out that the anti-terrorism bill funded halibut fishing in Ted Stevens's Alaska. McCain cracked: "I guess there is a halibut problem up in Alaska, of which, unfortunately, the nation has not been aware." Scrutiny during the recess found money for U.S. attorneys, U.S. marshals, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the federal prison system had been cut. Added was a plethora of items unrelated to terrorism, among them: student housing, repairs of damaged Amtrak facilities, flood damage rehabilitation (including Byrd's West Virginia), and professional training for Egyptian journalists. When Congress returned from its recess, Democrats again attempted quick approval. While Republican senators attended a barbecue on the White House lawn Wednesday, Democrats demagogued on the Senate floor. "Do we really care about those people (victims of Sept. 11) who are dead?" asked Senate Majority Whip Harry Reid. With House Republicans warning they would not protect the president's budget if he did not fight in the Senate, Bush issued a veto warning: the president's "senior advisers would recommend that he veto the bill" in its present form. The appropriators were defiant. Republican Stevens called the veto threat "just a tactic of the administration." Repeating his familiar refrain, Democrat Byrd said: "No president sends me here, and no president is going to send me home." Although 210 amendments were filed, nobody expected protracted debate -- not with Republican senators leaving Friday for a golf outing in Williamsburg, Va. The first McCain-Gramm amendment, to eliminate $2 million for a Smithsonian Institution alcohol storage facility, was defeated 66 to 30. They failed, 65 to 31, to cut $2.5 million for coral mapping in Hawaii. The $50 million for an animal disease laboratory in Ames, Iowa, survived, 71 to 22. Offering additional amendments would be futile. Why so many Republican defections? "Fear," McCain told me. "Fear for their own projects." Nor was there heavy White House arm-twisting. Still, McCain and Gramm scored a minor victory as the midnight hour neared Thursday night. Byrd tried to push through a "manager's amendment" packed with more goodies for individual senators, but it was blocked on procedural grounds. Democrat Mary Landrieu of Louisiana lost her cool over losing a project. Republican Michael Enzi of Wyoming demanded help for his state's farmers. The respected Republican Pete Domenici was beside himself over losing aid for an airline back home in New Mexico. John McCain was not celebrating a small triumph that prevented a bad bill from getting a little worse. Besides, he expects the bill will return from the Senate-House conference loaded, containing still more spending utterly unconnected with fighting terrorists.