Angry McCain Slams Obama

Long delayed but not shrunken with time, a nearly $410 billion omnibus spending bill is fast becoming a great bone in the throat for Democrats and the White House, just when each hoped to put the past behind them and move onto President Barack Obama’s new 2010 budget.

Minutes after hitting the Senate floor Monday, the bill touched off a fierce, emotional attack from the president’s old rival, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who lectured Obama for failing to do more to stand up against the thousands of spending earmarks in the 1,132 pages.

At the same time, Democrats admitted privately that the White House itself has hurt their cause by frightening off Republicans, who negotiated the bill in December but are now in “sticker shock” after seeing the full cost of the new president’s agenda.

The giant measure covers more than a dozen Cabinet departments and represents unfinished business from last fall, when Democrats and the Bush administration were at loggerheads over domestic spending. But in today’s environment — of soaring deficits and unemployment — it’s an explosive mix of parochial projects and new spending. And as Obama himself famously quoted Faulkner in the campaign last year, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

Certainly not for McCain. Monday’s floor speech was the most personal attack yet by the Arizona Republican in what has already become a surprisingly strained, often hostile approach to the new president.

“If it seems like I’m angry, it’s because I am,” McCain said, taking the White House to task for treating the bill as leftover business — and not subject to the full measure of earmark reform promised by candidate Obama.

“Last year’s business?” McCain asked, incredulous. “The president will sign this appropriations bill into law. It is the president’s business. It is the president of the United States’ business. It is the president of the United States’ business to do what he said — stated — when we were in debate seeking the support of the American people — where he said he would work to eliminate earmarks.”

“We need earmark reform and when I’m president, I will go line by line to make sure we’re not spending money unwisely,” McCain said, reading back Obama’s words at a debate last fall. “That’s the quote, the promise of the president of the United States made to the American people in a debate with me in Oxford, Miss. So what is brought to the floor today — 9,000 earmarks.…So much for change.”

The House approved the same omnibus measure Wednesday on a 245-178 vote, and Democrats had hoped to quickly move it through the Senate — without change — and send the bill onto the White House by Friday.

Friday is when a stop-gap spending resolution, which has kept much of the government operating since last fall, is due to expire; the Appropriations leadership’s goal has been to put the omnibus in place by then to avoid any disruption.

Most agencies would prefer this as well, since it is difficult to operate under interim financing. But McCain is now pressing for a simple extension of the stop-gap resolution through the remainder of this fiscal year Sept. 30 as an alternative to the Democratic bill.

That would save perhaps $19 billion on an annual basis and kill many of the earmarks he opposes. But the idea faces substantial bipartisan opposition, and Democrats are more likely to tough it out or accept some level of spending cuts to win over reluctant Republicans.

Sixty votes are again needed to cut off debate under Senate rules. And in their own ranks, Democrats expect Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) to defect because of his opposition to Cuban-related provisions in the package. Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, has pledged his support but warned that getting enough votes may very well require changes — and a second vote in the House.

“I intend to support it,” Cochran told POLITICO. “But it would be a lot more palatable to Republicans with some spending cuts.”

Cochran and many Democrats agree that the changed dynamics now reflect more Obama’s impact than their own earmarks — which constitute no more than 2 percent of the total bill.

It was the administration that insisted that the omnibus bill wait until Congress first approved the president’s $787 billion economic recovery plan. And in his budget last Thursday, Obama surprised many in his own party by asking for tens of billions more in 2010 for discretionary spending.

Altogether, the president’s budget would increase domestic appropriations by about $36.4 billion, or 7 percent, in 2010, including $5 billion for a new infrastructure bank. This follows on the more than $20 billion in increases built into the pending omnibus bill, and if enacted, the measure would bring total domestic appropriations for this year to a level about 6.2 percent above 2008.

Add in the impact of the stimulus bill on many of the same accounts, and Republicans argue that Obama would have been far smarter politically to have taken a pause in 2010 and allowed agencies more time to digest what they already have on their plates.

The Environmental Protection Agency would be a case in point. The omnibus bill now would add about $174 million in 2009, bringing the total EPA budget to about $7.6 billion. But in Obama’s 2010 budget and the stimulus bill, the same accounts would receive almost $10 billion more, chiefly for state and local clean water projects that are funded by formula but still a big challenge to absorb.

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