Obama to sign spending bill, push for new rules

Posted March 11, 2009, at 9:09 a.m.

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama plans to sign a massive spending bill to keep the federal government running, even though it is stashed with the very kinds of pet projects that the campaigning Obama promised to resist.

Obama could sign the $410 billion spending package as early as Wednesday, although he remains “troubled” by the so-called earmarks in the bill that Republicans and moderate Democrats have assailed as unworthy pork-barrel spending. The president planned to use the signing ceremony to announce earmark reforms.

The Senate approved the measure by voice after it cleared a key procedural hurdle by a 62-35 vote. Sixty votes were required to shut down debate.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, voted in favor of the bill, while U.S. Sen. Susan Collins opposed it.

“Voting against this measure would have unraveled federal agencies tied to essential government services, ranging from the administration of entitlements, like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, to the distribution of Food Stamps as well as critical housing and agriculture programs,” Snowe said in a news release after the vote. “Reverting back to FY ’08 funding levels during this time of tremendous economic peril, and six months into FY ‘09, would have forced many government agencies, from Veterans Affairs to the Department of Health and Human Services, to make difficult funding decisions that would have directly, and negatively affected millions of hard-working American families, compounding the myriad problems many are already facing.”

“While this bill contains important funding for many worthwhile programs, its overall size is excessive since it would increase discretionary spending by eight percent over last fiscal year’s levels, far above the rate of inflation,” Collins said, explaining her opposition. “Even more troubling, because it was drafted last year, the bill does not take into account the funding recently approved in the economic stimulus package. As a result, it contains excessive and in some cases duplicative funding for many agencies and programs that already received significant funding boosts in the economic stimulus law.”

White House officials in recent weeks have dismissed criticism of the earmarks in the bill, saying the legislation was a remnant of last year and that the president planned to turn his attention to future spending instead of looking backward.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama wouldn’t be the first president to sign legislation that he viewed as less than ideal. Asked whether Obama had second thoughts about signing the bill, Gibbs’ reply was curt: “No.”

“This is necessary to continue funding government,” Gibbs said. “It represents last year’s business. Although it’s not perfect, the president will sign the legislation, but demonstrate for all involved rules moving forward that he thinks can make this process work a little bit better.”

It’s that process that administration official planned to focus on Wednesday, not a bill signing that might take place in private. Aides said the administration would move to introduce new “rules of the road” that could allow Obama greater sway over lawmakers, particularly on politically embarrassing spending that generated mockery from pundits and rival politicians.

During his presidential campaign, Obama promised to force Congress to curb its pork-barrel-spending ways. Yet the bill sent from the Democratic-controlled Congress to the White House on Tuesday contained 7,991 earmarks totaling $5.5 billion, according to calculations by the Republican staff of the House Appropriations Committee.

While the White House would say only that Obama would announce new rules on earmarks on Wednesday, it was clear he wanted to rein in spending, particularly on the pet projects lawmakers inserted into the spending bill.

The 1,132-page bill has an extraordinary reach, wrapping together nine spending bills to fund the annual operating budgets of every Cabinet department except Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs. Among the many earmarks are $485,000 for a boarding school for at-risk native students in western Alaska and $1.2 million for Helen Keller International so the nonprofit can provide eyeglasses to students with poor vision.

Most of the government has been running on a stopgap funding bill set to expire at midnight Wednesday. Refusing to sign the newly completed spending bill would force Congress to pass another bill to keep the lights on come Thursday or else shut down the massive federal government. That is an unlikely possibility for a president who has spent just seven weeks in office.

The $410 billion bill includes significant increases in food aid for the poor, energy research and other programs. It was supposed to have been completed last fall, but Democrats opted against election-year battles with Republicans and former President George W. Bush.

The measure was a top priority for Democratic leaders, who praised it for numerous increases denied by Bush. It once enjoyed support from Republicans.

But the bill ran into an unexpected political hailstorm in Congress after Obama’s spending-heavy economic stimulus bill and his 2010 budget plan, which forecast a $1.8 trillion deficit for the current budget year.

The bill’s big increases — among them a 14 percent boost for a popular program that feeds infants and poor women and a 10 percent increase for housing vouchers for the poor — represent a clear win for Democrats who spent most of the past decade battling with Bush over money for domestic programs.

Generous above-inflation increases are spread throughout, including a $2.4 billion, 13 percent increase for the Agriculture Department and a 10 percent increase for the money-losing Amtrak passenger rail system. The measure also contains a provision denying lawmakers the automatic cost-of-living pay increase they are due next Jan. 1.

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