Congress reconvened for the election year Tuesday, and Senate Democrats immediately set an acrimonious tone by blocking action on a spending bill covering nearly half of the federal government.
Democrats won a test vote and delayed approval of the $328-billion spending bill, an embarrassing defeat for Republican leaders just hours before President Bush was to deliver his State of the Union address.
The vote was 48 to 45 in favor of holding an immediate vote, far short of the 60 votes needed to cut off debate. Republican leaders expect to reverse the vote and pass the bill by week’s end.
The delaying tactic reflects many Democrats’ opposition to controversial Bush policies in the bill -- especially proposed new limits on overtime pay and a delay in meat safety rules. But it also was a warning shot signaling Democrats’ fresh determination to stand united in opposition to GOP policies as the parties battle on the campaign trail.
The spending bill is packed with money for a host of popular programs -- including education, law enforcement and health research -- and for pork-barrel projects sought by members of both parties. As a result, Democrats, having registered their protest against key provisions and the White House’s heavy-handed tactics when the bill was written last year, are expected to abandon their filibuster soon.
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who supported the bill but voted to sustain the filibuster for now, said Democrats wanted to “make a point, then move on.”
The new year’s combative tone was set before Congress convened. Democrats returned to town infuriated because Bush last week circumvented the Senate and appointed a controversial conservative judge, Charles W. Pickering Sr., whom Democrats had blocked for more than two years.
“The president could not have started out this session of Congress in a worse way,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
The first order of business before the Senate was legislation passed last year by the House that provides funding for dozens of Cabinet departments and agencies for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
Because of congressional delays in enacting regular appropriations, those agencies have been operating under last year’s spending levels through a stopgap measure that expires Jan. 31.
Daschle predicted that the omnibus spending bill would pass before then, but he said he wanted to turn up the pressure on Republicans to try to fix provisions that Democrats found particularly offensive.
“Our desire is not to kill the bill,” Daschle said. “Our desire is to give them a chance to fix it.”
One contested provision would delay for two years rules requiring meat to bear country-of-origin labels -- a delay that became especially controversial after last month’s discovery of a case of mad cow disease in Washington state. Republican leaders refused to change the provision even as Democrats blocked the bill, but they would not rule out the possibility of addressing the issue in separate legislation.
Republican leaders warned against delaying final approval of the bill, arguing that it included more money for popular programs such as education than they were receiving under stopgap funding. The bill also includes $200 million to help California recover from recent wildfires.
The partisan byplay over spending bodes ill for what the Senate can accomplish in this legislative year, which is already truncated by campaign schedules and overshadowed by election-year politics.
“I don’t want people’s expectations to be sky-high,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee. “I don’t want to overpromise.”