Congress on Path to Adjournment After Senate Passes Omnibus

Posted December 18, 2007 at 10:51pm

After months of trying and failing to buck the president’s dual demands for lower spending and unrestrained funding for the Iraq War, the Senate on Tuesday passed a scaled-back, but still massive, catchall spending bill along with funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Barring any surprises, the move means Congress should be able to adjourn for the year on Wednesday. The measure moves to the House for concurrence on Wednesday, and President Bush is expected to sign the measure into law.

In an unusual move, Senate Democrats split the votes on war funding and domestic spending, even though both will — upon House passage — move to the president as one piece of legislation.

Dividing the vote on the omnibus spending bill ensured that Democrats opposed to war funding would not have to cast a vote for the overall bill with that funding included. It also allowed Republicans opposed to earmarks and emergency spending in the omnibus to vote for the war money but against the domestic appropriations.

“It’s the best of both worlds for both parties,” said one Senate GOP aide. “No party will have to take a vote on the other party’s priorities.”

When the House takes up the measure — likely Wednesday — the vote will be similarly split.

But Senate Republicans provided the bulk of the support in the 70-25 vote for the $70 billion in war funding in voting for an amendment by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Still, 22 Democrats voted with the majority of Republicans to reach the artificially imposed 60-vote threshold the amendment needed to reach for adoption. Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith was the only Republican to vote against the troop funding. Both Democrats and Republicans agreed to the 60-vote hurdle in order to avoid time-consuming procedural maneuvers that also require a supermajority for passage.

Despite significant Democratic support for McConnell’s amendment, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) lashed out at the proposal.

“This amendment simply does more of what Congressional Republicans have done since the war began: It rubber-stamps President Bush’s reckless management of the war that has cost us so dearly in lives, limbs and treasure,” Reid said in a statement.

Prior to the vote on the McConnell proposal, Senate Democrats said they were nervous about their ability to deliver enough votes to make sure the measure topped 60 votes. Bush had conditioned his willingness to sign the overall omnibus on whether it included the war funding he had asked for without timelines for troop withdrawals.

“That will be the critical vote,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said a few hours before the roll was called.

Notably, Senate Democrats attracted two new Republican votes for their latest legislative attempt to force Bush to change the mission in Iraq and begin bringing troops home.

Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), who has previously opposed Democratic anti-war efforts, co-sponsored the nonbinding Sense of the Senate resolution offered by Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.). Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) also voted for the resolution.

But the resolution was considerably weaker than past proposals to end the war. Not only was it nonbinding, but also it did not specify a desired date for the withdrawal of troops, as other Levin amendments have done. The final vote was 50-45, but the measure needed 60 votes to prevail.

Additionally, the Senate voted 24-71 against a Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) amendment to force the president to limit U.S. troops’ mission in Iraq within nine months to counterterrorism, training of Iraqi forces, and protection of U.S. interests.

The underlying $515 billion domestic omnibus spending bill passed easily on a 76-17 vote — with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) voting present — despite vocal opposition from Senate GOP conservatives.

The omnibus fell about $22 billion short of what Democrats originally wanted to spend. However, it does include approximately $11 billion in emergency and contingency funds for items such as veterans programs and disaster aid.

Senate Democrats also took two largely symbolic votes Tuesday evening that were designed to send messages to the House about the level of support in the Senate for two key bills.

The first on a procedural maneuver to limit debate, or invoke cloture, on the House-passed omnibus failed, 44-51. Senate Democratic leaders scheduled the vote in an effort to show House Democrats that their version — which provided $31 billion for the war in Afghanistan, but none for Iraq — could not survive a filibuster in the chamber.

Similarly, the Senate proved it could not overcome GOP opposition to a House-passed bill to make sure the alternative minimum tax does not affect 23 million middle-income taxpayers next year. The 48-46 tally fell short of the 60 needed.

The vote marked the second House AMT bill blocked by Senate Republicans, because it attempted to offset the cost of limiting the tax for one year. Because the Senate has shown it cannot pass a bill that would pay for the cost of the AMT fix, the House is expected to take up and pass a Senate-passed AMT patch that is not offset.

Earlier today, the Senate unanimously passed an 18-month extension of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, after Bush vetoed two bills that sought to expand the program.

Reid said on the floor tonight that the Senate will be in session Wednesday to deal with miscellaneous nominations and non-controversial House-passed bills, but no roll call votes are expected.

“I don’t expect any heavy lifting tomorrow,” said Reid. “At least, I hope not.”