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Some Senate Democrats shun huge spending bill
By ANDREW TAYLOR
Associated Press
2009-03-05 12:32 AM
A few Senate Democrats are voicing opposition to a pending $410 billion catchall spending bill, unhappy with its cost and changes to U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Most importantly, Democrats Evan Bayh and Russ Feingold announced Wednesday that they are voting against the bill, and each urged President Barack Obama to veto it if it passes later this week.

The White House has signaled that Obama will sign the bill _ even though it contains almost 8,000 pet projects sought by lawmakers _ calling the measure last year's business.

"The omnibus debate is not merely a battle over last year's unfinished business, but the first indication of how we will shape our fiscal future," Bayh wrote in an op-ed in Wednesday's Wall St. Journal.

"I'm going to vote against it," Feingold said. "The president should veto it."

The measure contains budget increases, on average, of 8 percent for the domestic agencies it covers, far more than they received under the Bush administration. But moderate Democrats are unhappy with the additional spending, especially after many agencies received huge infusions of money under the just-enacted economic recovery bill.

"It's become increasingly clear that most of our Democrat colleagues here in Congress _ Senator Bayh notwithstanding _ are perfectly comfortable with the breathtaking rate of spending we've been on since the beginning of the year," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, az Republican. "They want it to continue, without restraint and without any end in sight."

At the same time, Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez and Bill Nelson are weighing whether to oppose the legislation over a provision buried in it that would moderate rules on travel to Cuba and would make it easier for Cuba to pay for imports of food and medicine.

It is not clear whether the pockets of opposition are enough to sink the measure, which would fund 12 Cabinet departments and other agencies for the ongoing budget year. Democratic leaders hope to clear the bill _ which passed the House last week _ to meet a Friday deadline.

That is when a stopgap funding law that keeps the government going, mostly at 2008 levels, runs out.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, is also trying to keep the bill free of floor amendments that would force the measure into negotiations with the House that would delay enactment.

But that means Democrats will have to cast some politically difficult votes. One of the most uncomfortable could come Wednesday on an amendment by Tom Coburn, a Republican, to kill 13 so-called pet projects or earmarks requested by lawmakers for projects sought by PMA Group, a lobbying company at the center of a federal corruption investigation.

The PMA Group, which recently folded, had a reputation for funneling campaign money to lawmakers that obtained earmarks for its clients and is under investigation by the Justice Department over whether the company reimbursed some employees for campaign contributions to members of Congress who requested the projects.

On Cuba, Menendez is upset by a provision that would restore travel rules permitting people to visit relatives in Cuba once every 12 months. President George W. Bush imposed rules in 2004 that limited travel to just two weeks every three years and confined visits to immediate family members.

The omnibus bill also would lift restrictions on financing imports of U.S. food and medicine into Cuba and effectively reverse Bush administration rules requiring "cash-in-advance" payment.

"If the omnibus bill is signed by the president as is, he will be extending a hand while the Castro regime maintains its iron-handed clenched fist," Menendez said Monday.

The underlying legislation will need at least a few Republican votes to clear a key legislative hurdle later this week.

Sen. Thad Cochran, the Appropriations Committee's top Republican, is the only Republican so far to publicly announce support for the bill, though other old-school Republican panel members are likely to help the bill along _ in large part because of the many pet projects they have obtained.

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