$1 Trillion Budget Resolution OK'd
Congress this week cleared a fiscal 2009 budget resolution that for the first time pushes annual federal spending over $1 trillion. The action also marked the first time since 2000 that Congress has passed an annual budget during an election year. Democrats set discretionary spending at $21 billion above President Bush's request for the coming fiscal year, even though he has vowed to veto appropriations bills if they exceed his overall request. The Senate approved the resolution 48-45 on June 4, and the House passed it 214-210 on June 5. Democrats contended that their budget, while assuming a $400 billion deficit this year, will achieve balance and generate small surpluses in four years. Republicans charged that those surpluses would depend on the expiration of 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. "Let there be no mistake about it: There is the largest tax increase in the history of the world in this budget," Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., declared on the Senate floor. The budget resolution sets up a fight for later this year over the alternative minimum tax, on which Congress must again act to prevent the AMT from hitting millions of middle-class taxpayers. Under the resolution, Democrats will seek to offset the $50 billion-plus cost of the AMT fix with other tax increases or spending cuts, which Republicans will likely oppose.
--Brian Friel/National Journal
War Package Pared Down in House
House Democratic leaders this week cut domestic programs and a tax hike out of the pending supplemental spending bill that would fund the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In an effort to prepare a bill that President Bush would sign, the leaders hoped to pare down the package to about $165 billion in war funding through the middle of 2009 and a $50 billion-plus expansion of college aid for military veterans. At the beginning of the week, Democrats suggested they would cut out a number of other measures included in versions of the legislation that the House and Senate approved in May. Among the items expected to be axed were a Senate-passed expansion of unemployment benefits, billions of dollars in additional domestic spending, a challenge to several Bush administration health care regulations, and a House-passed tax increase on the wealthy to pay for the veterans' college aid. Subsequently, the White House signaled it would sign the supplemental if the veterans benefit were modified. The proposed elimination of the tax increase angered the fiscally conservative House Democratic Blue Dogs, who want the cost of the veterans benefit offset by either spending cuts or a tax increase. Without such an offset, the benefit would add to the federal debt, violating Democrats' "pay-as-you-go" budgeting rules. But House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said that the Senate objected to applying "paygo" to the veterans benefit. "To hold our veterans hostage to a Senate that won't pay for things, I think is not good policy," Hoyer said on June 4. Even without many Blue Dogs' votes, Democratic leaders expected they could pass the measure in the House with the support of Republicans who back the war funding and the veterans aid.
--Brian Friel/National Journal
No Daylight for Senate Climate Bill
The long-awaited Senate debate on global-warming legislation bogged down this week because of a partisan standoff over judicial nominations in the Bush administration's dwindling months. In an initial procedural vote on June 2 to limit debate on moving to the global-warming bill, the measure gained wide support, 74-14. The legislation aims to reduce heat-trapping greenhouse-gas emissions from the United States by about 70 percent by midcentury and would establish a cap-and-trade program to help do so. The policy debate was sidetracked midweek, however, when Republicans protested over the Senate's slow confirmation of judicial nominees and demanded a deal to confirm seven more judges this year. The result was an hours-long reading on the Senate floor of the 492-page climate-change bill, followed by procedural maneuvering at press time on June 5 that seriously jeopardized further debate. Although few observers expected the Senate to approve the measure this year, proponents were watching Democrats from manufacturing and energy-producing states to help determine how legislation might eventually be enacted. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said he is worried about the impact on his coal-rich state. "The bill isn't going anywhere anyway," he said. "I want more time and better faith from some of the principals in talking about my state of West Virginia." Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member James Inhofe, R-Okla., called the legislation the "largest tax increase in the history of America," echoing a veto threat issued by the White House on June 2. Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.--who is sponsoring the bill with Sens. Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and John Warner, R-Va.--countered that Republicans were spouting "misinformation and untruth." She said the measure would provide about $800 billion in tax credits to consumers and $911 billion to local utilities to pass on to their customers as rebates.
Farm Bill Sows Additional Votes
The Senate was moving at press time on June 5 toward passing the entire farm bill again, after which Congress will send the measure to President Bush, again, and he is expected to veto it, again, sending it back to Capitol Hill for another round of likely override votes. The unusual sequence was set in motion by a clerical error that dropped the package's trade title in the version that was printed on parchment and sent to Bush last month. The glitch was discovered during the week of May 19, while both chambers were voting to override the president's veto of an incomplete farm bill. Congressional leaders decided that, just to be sure, both chambers would pass the bill a second time--this time with the trade title--and send it to Bush again. The House approved the bill a second time before the Memorial Day recess. Some Senate Republicans were expected to speak against the bill on June 5, but leaders were confident they had enough votes to move past them and approve the legislation again.
Hill Dems Rally Around Obama
As the Democratic presidential nominating contest finally moved toward a conclusion after the remaining primaries on June 3, a rush of superdelegates on Capitol Hill endorsed Sen. Barack Obama. Among them were party leaders, including House Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois. "Obama is our party's best chance for victory in November, and our nation's best hope for much-needed change," Clyburn said. "He has created levels of energy and excitement that I have not witnessed since the 1960s." In addition, eight previously uncommitted senators--Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Ben Cardin, D-Md., Thomas Carper, D-Del., Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Mary Landrieu, D-La., Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., Ken Salazar, D-Colo., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.--issued a joint statement that congratulated both Democratic candidates and pledged their support to Obama. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton planned to formally announce her endorsement of Obama at a Washington event on June 7, as Obama pivoted his focus to the presumptive GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain. Meanwhile, incumbents comfortably prevailed in congressional primary results in several states. One notable result was Lautenberg's 59 percent to 35 percent victory over Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., who had emphasized the age of his 84-year-old foe.
--Richard E. Cohen/National Journal
Kennedy and Byrd Recuperating
The two longest-serving sitting senators spent much of the week in hospitals. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., underwent brain surgery at Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina on June 2. Doctors removed parts of a brain tumor during a three-and-a-half-hour procedure as the first part of an aggressive treatment for cancer. "I feel like a million bucks," Kennedy, 76, said after the surgery, according to a family spokesperson. "I think I'll do that again tomorrow." Meanwhile, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., was hospitalized on June 2 and remained there until June 5 for observation and treatment for a mild infection. A statement from the office of the 90-year-old senator said he "is expected to return to his official Senate duties upon his doctors' approval." For good measure, the statement added that Byrd had "asked his staff if Vice President Cheney had issued an apology to the people of West Virginia for his recent derogatory remarks about the people of the Mountain State." The absence of the two senators affected this week's vote on the annual congressional budget resolution. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., had been counting on their votes for passage. Instead, two retiring Republicans, Sens. John Warner of Virginia and Pete Domenici of New Mexico, "paired" their votes with Kennedy and Byrd. Warner and Domenici voted present, rather than no, effectively canceling out the absence of Byrd and Kennedy, who would have voted yes.
--Brian Friel/National Journal
This article appears in the June 7, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.