Dems now in budget hot seat

WASHINGTON — The most basic job of Congress is to pass the bills that pay the costs of running the government. After criticizing Republicans for falling down on the job last year, Democrats now are the ones stumbling.

The government’s new budget year begins Monday, but Congress has not completed even one of the dozen spending bills appropriating money for the day-to-day operations of 15 Cabinet departments.

President Bush has lobbed veto threat after veto threat at Democratic spending bills because, taken as a whole, they would break his budget by $23 billion or more.

This is hardly the first time that Congress has fallen behind schedule. Last year, when Republicans ran Congress, they gave up on the budget altogether and forced Democrats to finish it on Valentine’s Day in February — 41/2 months late.

Now it is Democrats, after roasting Republicans for the way they botched their budget work, who are vulnerable to criticism that they are doing no better. Republicans are happy to oblige.

“It is deja vu all over again,” said Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., who a year ago was chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

He quoted the current chairman, Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., as blasting Republicans in the past for “failing to meet even the most basic and minimal expectations that the country has for it by way of doing our routine business.”

Like last year, most of the Democrats’ appropriations failings can be blamed on the Senate, which has passed just four of the 12 spending bills.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has devoted lots of debate time to Iraq, immigration and a defense policy bill at the expense of the nuts and bolts work of passing spending bills.

Lewis said “the failure of the appropriations process can be laid squarely at the feet of the present Senate majority leader.”

The Senate’s top Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said spending bills “are our first responsibility, not our last.” He added, “We’ve had plenty of votes on other things — nearly 30 votes on Iraq. We should be making room for other things.”

Reid said Friday he hopes to complete two more bills this coming week, before the Senate takes a vacation. He blamed Bush and GOP opposition to nonrelated bills for the delay.

“As you know, there’s controversy with the president over his threats to veto all these bills,” Reid said. “We know we should have gotten to them sooner, but we’ve had 48 filibusters we’ve had to deal with this year which has slowed things down significantly.”

It long has been assumed that the Bush administration and Democrats would find themselves in a legislative train wreck that would not get resolved until late in the fall. Even in years when one party runs both Capitol Hill and the White House, Congress invariably needs extra time to complete its budget work.

But Democrats raised expectations in last year’s campaign that they would do a better job running Congress than Republicans had.

The four bills that have passed the Senate are in House-Senate talks, including the homeland security measure and a veterans bill. The White House has backed off a veto threat on the veterans bill and Democrats are confident they can win an override vote on the homeland security measure if it contains $3 billion sought by Republicans for a fence along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Both sides see the Pentagon spending bill, with a $40 billion increase for the military, as the engine that will power legislation encompassing all of the uncompleted bills into law — maybe by Christmas.

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