In a Victory for Earmark Opponents, Dems Drop Their Trillion-Dollar Omnibus Spending Bill

By Patrick Goodenough | December 17, 2010 | 6:17 AM EST

Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell holds up the 1,924-page omnibus spending bill on the Senate floor on Thursday night. (Screenshot: C-SPAN)

( – Senate Democrats Thursday evening withdrew an earmark-laden omnibus spending bill, agreeing instead to work on a short-term, stop-gap funding bill – a “continuing resolution” – to keep the federal government running beyond midnight Saturday.

Earlier, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates had urged the Senate to pass the $1.27-trillion spending bill rather than a continuing resolution, which Gates said would be “the worst of all possible worlds” for the Pentagon.

Breaking the news on the Senate floor, Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) took aim at nine unnamed Republican senators who he said had earlier indicated support for the spending bill but had “walked away” in recent days.

“A number of Republican senators told me that they’d like to see it pass and they couldn’t vote for it,” he said. “So those nine senators – I’ve called some of them tonight and visited with them – they’re not going to support this legislation.”

As a result, Reid said, he and Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell would over the next day or so “work to try to come up with a C.R. [continuing resolution] to fund the government for a certain period of time. That’s where we are right now.”

The legislation keeping the federal government funded expires at midnight on Saturday. Senate Republicans opposed to the omnibus bill – a compilation of 12 spending bills -- and had called instead for a “continuing resolution” to keep the government funded through next year.

Opposition to the omnibus bill arose because it was loaded with wasteful spending -- $8 billion in earmarks to pay for lawmakers’ pet home-state projects.

Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Jim DeMint (S.C.) earlier warned that they would force the entire 1,900-page bill to be read out loud. When Democrats pulled their "monstrosity," as McCain called it, he told his colleagues, "We just saw something extraordinary on the floor of the United States Senate."

Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid displays a pocket-size copy of the Constitution on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010, as he announced that the Democrats were dropping an omnibus spending bill and would work with Republican leaders instead on a short-term continuing resolution. (Screenshot: C-SPAN)

On the Senate floor, Reid defended earmarks. Holding up a pocket-size copy of the Constitution, he said that one of the responsibilities set forth in the document was to ensure that the executive branch of government does not take power away from the legislative branch.

“I think my Republican friends are giving up so much to the executive branch of government in doing away with congressionally-directed spending,” he said.

“I would say this – it wouldn’t matter if George Bush the first, George Bush the second, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, President Clinton or Barack Obama were president, I don’t like this grab of power and that’s what it is,” Reid continued. “I don’t know why people in this branch of government are willing to give that power up.”

That was the second time on Thursday that Reid pulled out his copy of the Constitution. Speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill earlier, he wielded it while accusing Republicans of hypocrisy and taking a shot at the White House.

“I’m going to fight as hard as I can against President Obama on these earmarks and my Republican colleagues who hate to vote for them but love to get them,” he said.

A number of lawmakers also objected to rushing through a massive bill that normally involves months of debate:  "Just a few weeks after the voters told us they don't want us rushing major pieces of complicated, costly, far-reaching legislation through Congress, we get this," McConnell said. "This is no way to legislate."

‘A gigantic problem for the Pentagon’

Before the Democrats gave up, the omnibus spending bill was raised during a joint White House press conference on Afghanistan involving Gates, Clinton, Joint Chiefs of Staff vice-chairman Gen. James Cartwright and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

Gibbs signaled then that Obama would likely sign the bill into law despite his earlier pledges to impose fiscal discipline and to work to end earmarks.

He did not directly answer “yes” when asked whether Obama would veto the bill, saying “I would wait to see what the final bill will look like.” But he pointed to the appeals from the departments of State and Defense and said “we are long overdue on these bills and the president has to make tough determinations about the equities as they are.”

In his comments on the issue, Gates said a stop-gap measure would be “the worst of all possible worlds” for the Defense Department.

“The omnibus is not great, but it beats a year-long continuing resolution,” he said. “A year-long continuing resolution would be a gigantic problem for the Department of Defense.”

“We have very little flexibility to move money around the Pentagon budget without getting congressional approval for reprogrammings, which is always a complicated and time-consuming process. We have no flexibility in starting any new programs, such as funding for Cyber Command.”

Gates expressed his own distaste for earmarks, describing as “the poster child of earmarks” the $450 million allocated for the development of a second engine for the Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jet. The Pentagon says the engine is not necessary and has tried to cancel the program but lawmakers have continued to fund it.

Clinton issued a statement Thursday afternoon adding her voice to the debate, listing State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development priorities that were to have been funded in the omnibus bill.

“We need these resources now more than ever to support national security priorities in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan where we are helping secure gains made by our military and preventing the spread of violent extremism,” she said.

“Our budget is being used to help stabilize the global economy, combat extreme poverty, demolish transnational criminal networks, stop global health pandemics, and address the threat of climate change. These are not partisan issues; they are national imperatives.”

Clinton said she agreed with Gates that the reprogramming requirements that a continuing resolution would entail “would seriously impede our efforts to meet unanticipated national security needs.”

When campaigning for the presidency, Obama took a stand against pork-barrel spending, and two weeks before being sworn in the then-president-elect promised to ban all earmarks from his economic stimulus plan, pledging a “higher standard of accountability, transparency and oversight.”

With earmarks back on the agenda after the mid-term elections, Obama last month used a weekly radio address to renew the pledge.

“I agree with those Republican and Democratic members of Congress who’ve recently said that, in these challenging days, we can’t afford what are called earmarks,” he said.

Obama said earmarks comprise only a small proportion of the federal budget, “but when it comes to signaling our commitment to fiscal responsibility, addressing them would have an important impact.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow