Omnibus Finally Passes in Senate

Posted March 10, 2009 at 6:15pm

Updated: 9:42 p.m.

Despite a threatened filibuster that forced a four-day delay in passage, the Senate passed the $410 billion omnibus spending bill by voice vote on Tuesday night.

The key vote came on a procedural motion that beat back a Republican attempt to block the bill, and Democrats prevailed, 62-35. Sixty votes were needed to end debate. The measure, which provides new funding authority to most government agencies, now goes to President Barack Obama for his expected signature.

Democrats had struggled last week to find enough Republicans willing to help them reach the 60-vote threshold and were rebuffed on their first attempt Thursday night to pass the measure. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was forced to extend debate on the omnibus until Tuesday because as many as four Democrats had threatened to vote against it and centrist Republicans who supported the measure withheld their votes in order to help their GOP colleagues win more votes on amendments.

Three Democrats voted against the procedural motion. Sens. Evan Bayh (Ind.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Russ Feingold (Wis.) did so because they oppose the thousands of earmarks in the measure. Democratic Sens. Bob Menendez (N.J.) and Bill Nelson (Fla.) ended up supporting it, after winning concessions from the Treasury Department on how it would interpret language relaxing travel restrictions to Cuba.

Eight Republicans — including Senate Appropriations ranking member Thad Cochran (Miss.) and Sens. Kit Bond (Mo.), Richard Shelby (Ala.), Olympia Snowe (Maine), Arlen Specter (Pa.), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Roger Wicker (Miss.) — ended up supporting the motion to end debate on the bill as well. All but Snowe and Wicker sit on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Passage was complicated by Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) insistence that the Senate make no changes to the House-passed bill. And the refusal to adopt amendments led to the small revolt among Senate Democrats, who opposed earmarks and other provisions in the bill.

Still, most Democrats stuck together to vote down 21 amendments to the bill.

Although much of the attention Tuesday was centered on a proposal by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) to prevent automatic pay hikes for lawmakers, the closest vote came on a Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) amendment that dealt with the touchy subject of immigration.

Sessions’ proposal to extend a voluntary online program that helps businesses confirm employees’ immigration status was narrowly tabled, 50-47. Seven Democrats voted with the GOP not to table the amendment: Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), Bayh, Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), McCaskill, Ben Nelson (Neb.), Jon Tester (Mont.) and Jim Webb (Va.).

Vitter’s amendment was also tabled, 52-45. Democrats voting with the GOP were: Bayh, Chris Dodd (Conn.), Feingold, Klobuchar, Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), McCaskill, Ben Nelson, Webb and Ron Wyden (Ore.). Feingold was a co-sponsor of the amendment.

With passage of the omnibus, Congress has finally put to rest funding for fiscal 2009, which technically began five months ago on Oct. 1, 2008. The government has been operating under a stop-gap spending bill since last fall that kept agencies funded but did not allow them to implement new spending priorities.

House Democratic leaders praised the Senate for passing the bill; now Congress won’t need to pass another continuing resolution to keep the government funded for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30.

Senate passage of the omnibus “completes the appropriations bills that the previous administration delayed and rejects the deep cuts affecting our children, our workers, and our economy that President Bush proposed,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said.

Congress can now give its full attention to this year’s priorities, Pelosi said, which includes strengthening the economy, reforming health care and moving toward energy independence.

House GOP leaders called on Obama to veto the bill, which they criticized for being irresponsible and bogged down with earmarks.

“A recession is not an excuse for politicians to spend taxpayers’ hard-earned money with reckless abandon,” House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said.

House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) complained that Obama has vowed to sign the bill into law because it is “last year’s business.”

“That is not the leadership the American people want or deserve,” Pence said.

Jennifer Bendery and John Stanton contributed to this report.