The Senate will vote Friday morning to cut off debate on a $410 billion omnibus appropriations bill, as Democratic leaders ratchet up the pressure for its passage.
Senate Majority Leader Reid Wednesday filed for cloture on the bill, saying it was the only way to meet a deadline of midnight Friday when the continuing resolution funding government programs covered by the nine FY09 appropriations in the omnibus expires.
"I think the time has come to bring [debate] to a close," he said.
Reid held out the possibility the Senate could hold a final vote on the package today, but it is unlikely Republicans would agree to that.
He said that in a meeting with House Speaker Pelosi on Tuesday, she warned the Senate against changing the package and that she would move to extend the current CR through the end of the fiscal year, rather than hold a vote on a Senate-amended omnibus.
"She said, 'we have put our members through a lot on this appropriations bill; I am not going to put them through any more. If there are any amendments to this we are going to do a CR for the rest of the year'," Reid said Pelosi told him.
The House passed the omnibus last week but would have to approve it again if any changes are made to it before sending it to President Obama.
With some moderate Democrats wavering on whether they will support passage, party leaders are whipping hard to assure the bill is approved, senators and aides said. "It's fair to say there's an extraordinary amount of pressure on this particular bill," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who said she has not decided how she will vote.
Wednesday, Sens. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., said they will oppose final passage. Other Democrats, including Sens. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., have said they are not sure how they will vote.
At least five Republicans, most of them appropriators, have voted with Democrats against amendments altering the bill and are likely to support final passage.
Though Democrats remain confident they will get 60 votes, the wavering among moderates suggests Obama and Reid could face a challenge lining up Democratic backing for big-ticket spending items on tap for later this year. A group of 14 Democratic senators met Tuesday to discuss concerns with Obama's $3.55 trillion FY10 budget, participants said.
Meanwhile, the Senate Wednesday voted down four amendments to the omnibus offered by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., including a proposal to strip 13 earmarks of more than $10 million directed to clients of the now-defunct PMA Group, which was raided by the FBI in connection with an investigation into campaign contributions. The amendment was defeated, 52-43. Coburn argued that the earmarks should be stripped from the bill "in the cloud of this" investigation.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said "The allegations against the PMA Group are serious and troubling and we in Congress ought to treat them as such. How in the world could we approve 13 earmarks that were obtained by a group that has been raided and shut down by the FBI?"
Reid said that these earmarks were for lawmakers on behalf of their constituents, not for PMA.
"Every one of these objections to funding that the senator from Oklahoma has, has a member of Congress' name by it -- that is the person responsible," he said. "So I hope that my colleagues will join me in defeating this vexatious amendment that is without any foundation."
Republicans have been quick to point out that the bill includes nearly 9,000 earmarks worth about $7.7 billion.
But citing analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense, McCaskill said, "Every single member of Republican leadership has earmarks in this bill ... and six of the top 10 earmakers in this bill are my friends on the other side of the aisle. In fact, the Republican leader has twice as many solo earmarks in this bill than the Democratic leader. America, don't be fooled."
Minority Leader McConnell has $51 million in earmarks in the bill, while Reid has $27 million, according to the group's analysis.
The Senate defeated three other Coburn amendments. One amendment, which fell 58-37, would have redirected $10 million out of the bill for the Justice Department to help with unsolved civil rights slayings.
Under Coburn's amendment the funding would have been used to fund the $10 million authorization for the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act that Congress passed last year. Currently, the omnibus does not directly provide funds for the Emmett Till Law and Coburn contends this amounts to Democratic leaders reneging on a commitment to appropriate the funds.
"If you are going to do this, and you are going to authorize it ... you ought to at least fund it," Coburn said.
Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye said adopting the amendment would have the effect of delaying civil rights funding in the bill.
The Senate should pass "this bill as quickly as possible so the Department of Justice has the necessary and adequate funding to pursue these [unsolved civil rights] cases. This amendment slows down that process," he said.
Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy said Coburn's concern for the Emmett Till Law was ironic because he held up the bill in the Senate for over a year.
The Senate also defeated, 57-38, an amendment introduced by Coburn to require competitive bidding for projects funded in the omnibus. The Senate also rejected, 61-34, a Coburn amendment that would have cut 11 earmarks, including $3.8 million to preserve the remnants of Tiger Stadium in Detroit; $1.9 million for the Pleasure Beach water taxi service in Connecticut, and $1.79 million for swine odor and manure management research to Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.
This article appears in the March 7, 2009, edition of NJ Daily.