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Omnibus Stalled Briefly

Senate Democrats on Tuesday dealt President Bush a significant, though largely symbolic, domestic policy defeat just hours before the commander in chief was set to address Congress and the nation in his annual State of the Union speech.

Though Senate Democrats were able to deny Bush and Senate GOP leaders the 60 votes needed to move forward on an $820 billion omnibus spending bill, Democrats acknowledged that it was unlikely they would be able or willing to extend their filibuster of the bill.

Indeed, Senate Republicans fell 12 votes short in trying to invoke cloture and bring debate on the omnibus to a close. The final vote tally was 48-45, with 40 Democrats drawing the support of four Republicans — Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Colo.), John Ensign (Nev.), John McCain (Ariz.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine) — and one Independent.

Three Democrats — Sens. Patty Murray (Wash.), Fritz Hollings (S.C.) and Zell Miller (Ga.) — sided with 45 Republicans.

Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) changed his vote for cloture to “nay” at the last minute, making him the 45th vote against cloture, so Senate rules would allow him to make a motion to reconsider the vote — which he has vowed to do this week, probably on Thursday.

And with many Democrats signaling that they would not be willing to block the bill once Frist tries to invoke cloture a second time, it appears the measure could make it to the president’s desk as early as next week.

Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) made plain his colleagues’ unwillingness to drag out the filibuster of the bill.

“Well, our desire isn’t to kill this bill, our desire is to give them a chance to fix it,” Daschle said before the vote. “It is my expectation that the omnibus will pass, either fixed or not, before” the current continuing resolution keeping the government funded expires at the end of next week.

In fact, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who supported Daschle’s call to block the bill on Tuesday, said he would vote for cloture “later in the week.”

And Appropriations ranking member Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) acknowledged that it was unlikely Democrats would continue to filibuster a bill that includes increases for health care, education and other Democratic priorities, as well as millions of dollars in targeted spending for most Senators’ states.

“I would anticipate that in due time, we would allow an up-or-down vote on the conference report,” Byrd said of the measure, which as a conference report is unamendable and has already been passed by the House.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) was the most blunt. “It’s to register a protest,” he said of the successful Democratic bid to block the bill for now.

Still, Democrats had differing reasons for registering a protest.

For Nelson, it represented a way to signal his displeasure with Republicans’ penchant for locking Democrats out of House-Senate conference committees on important legislation, such as a comprehensive energy bill and a measure to provide a prescription drug benefit under Medicare.

Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) boldly proclaimed, “This vote was about overtime pay.”

Harkin was referring to the decision of GOP conference committee negotiators to eliminate House- and Senate-passed language barring the Labor Department from implementing new overtime work rules that critics say could deny millions of Americans extra income.

Still, even Harkin stopped short of promising to continue the filibuster of the bill, saying he would attempt to address the issue on other pieces of legislation throughout the year.

Meanwhile, Republicans lamented that the delay in finishing the omnibus, which consists of seven appropriations bills that are already four months past due, would only further complicate their efforts to push their legislative agenda items for this year.

“I think how we handle that piece of legislation will in large part set the tone for the remainder of this Congress,” Frist said in a floor speech before the vote on the omnibus.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.) laid out the GOP leadership’s goals for the first two weeks of this session as finishing the omnibus, pressing action on a pension measure and addressing a bill to limit class-action lawsuits.

But he acknowledged it probably would not get done in the face of even a brief Democratic filibuster.

“A lot of this is sequenced based upon what happens with this vote,” Allen said of the omnibus.

Because the omnibus might not be passed and sent to the president until next week, it’s unlikely Frist can get to the class-action bill. But GOP aides said work on the pension bill may be possible.

Frist is limited in what he can do this week and next because of a GOP leadership retreat that begins Jan. 29, and a promise he made to Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) that a much-delayed federal highway funding bill would come to the Senate floor on Feb. 2.

Despite the delay, some Republicans were upbeat about the prospect that the long fiscal 2004 appropriations process would finally be over this week.

“If we allow the Democrats to do some posturing in order to get this bill passed this week, then I think that’s acceptable,” said Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.).

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