The Senate’s Big Votes

Earlier today, there were two big (but not close) votes in the Senate. The first extended the payroll tax holiday, but for only two months, after which the battle will have to be fought again. That vote was 89-10, with just two Democrats voting No–only one from the left–even though the continued de-funding of Social Security appears to put that program on the road to extinction, in its current form. Rather than a tax increase to pay for the short extension, the Senate settled on raising fees on new mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as an offset.

The most significant aspect of the Senate bill, apart from the long-term implications for Social Security, is its requirement that President Obama make a decision on the Keystone pipeline within the next 60 days. Obama preferred to punt the issue until after the election; now (assuming the House passes the same bill) it is generally believed that he will come out of the green closet and kill the pipeline. I am not so sure: that would not only hurt the economy, but would also be a politically-unpopular move, and Obama may think that he has catered enough to his party’s far-left base.

The Senate’s second vote passed a $1 trillion continuing resolution to continue funding the federal government. This bill has already passed the House, so it will go to Obama for signature. The spending bill passed 67-32, with considerable Republican opposition. Jeff Sessions, one of Congress’s stalwarts on budget issues, explained why he voted against the bill:

[H]ow did we get here?

It began with a decision by the Democrat-led Senate not to present a budget plan for the second straight year. Almost 1,000 days have passed since Senate Democrats have offered a budget. Under normal circumstances, this would be distressing. But in a time of crisis, it’s dangerous.

Beyond my concerns over the last-minute vote, there are several important reasons why I have decided to oppose the spending bill in its current form. Rhetorically, leaders in Washington have made a commitment to reduce spending. But, if the offsets do not pass—and I fear Senate Democrats will oppose them—Congress will actually end up increasing discretionary spending by $4 billion over last year. Even if the offsets do pass, due to previous discretionary appropriations, Congress will still fall short of the $7 billion discretionary reduction that was promised as part of the budget deal this summer—spending $2 billion more than the $1,043 cap identified as the maximum spending level.

Budget gimmicks have also been used that effectively hide the bill’s true cost. By using changes in mandatory spending that create the appearance of reductions—but really just delaying spending to a later time—the omnibus artificially lowers its price tag by more than $17 billion dollars. Congress used this trick to achieve the same artificial reduction last year. I introduced the Honest Budget Act to put a stop to exactly this sort of Washington accounting.

With a Greece-like debt crisis threatening this nation, especially the middle class, controlling spending must be an urgent national priority. House Republicans have worked vigilantly all year to change our debt course, and produced a budget to do exactly that. The great shame is that they never had willing partners in President Obama and his Democrat-led Senate.

So the deal that Republicans and Democrats struck last summer to raise the debt ceiling is already being circumvented. No surprise there–Congressional deals that purport to restrict future spending are always fictitious.

In recent years, John McCain has not gotten enough credit from conservatives as a legitimate budget hawk. He denounced today’s vote:

“Here we are again,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “Not one member of this body has read the 1,221 pages of this bill representing $915 billion of the taxpayers’ money. Here we are with 15 minutes to consider a document representing $915 billion of taxpayers’ money filled with unauthorized, unrequested spending.”

“It’s outrageous,” continued McCain. “I have amendments to save billions and billions of the taxpayers’ money, but never mind because we are going home for Christmas.”

McCain, who is the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the bill includes $3.5 billion in unauthorized Defense spending the Department of Defense neither wants nor needs. McCain and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said that money will go to contractors who are friends of lawmakers.

These are the Republicans–joined by the odd couple of Bernie Sanders and Claire McCaskill–who voted against the continuing resolution: Ayotte, Barrasso, Burr, Coats, Coburn, Corker, Cornyn, Crapo, DeMint, Enzi, Grassley, Hatch, Inhofe, Johnson (Wis.), Kirk, Kyl, Lee, Lugar, McCain, McConnell, Moran, Risch, Portman, Rubio, Sessions, Shelby, Snowe, Thune, Toomey and Vitter.

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