WASHINGTON — Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., has a hard time going home to Bay St. Louis and explaining why Congress wants to boost federal spending for the rest of this fiscal year by 8 percent.
“The police in my hometown make $10, $11 an hour” he said (although they actually make $12 to $13 an hour, according to the city). “How do I explain what we’re doing here?”
A lot of Democratic lawmakers from all over the country have similar qualms, even as most vote for historic spending bills aimed at reviving the staggering economy.
So far, there hasn’t been enough Democratic opposition to scuttle the $787 billion stimulus package, which President Barack Obama signed into law last month, or the $410 billion fiscal 2009 spending plan, which the Senate approved on Tuesday evening after voting 62-35 to end debate.
In that vote, the key test of the bill’s strength, three Democrats — Indiana’s Evan Bayh, Wisconsin’s Russell Feingold and Missouri’s Claire McCaskill — voted no. However, eight Republicans voted yes, clearing the way for Democrats to send the measure to Obama’s desk.
Warning signs are everywhere, however, that restless constituents could give Democrats in Congress second thoughts about expensive future legislation backed by Obama and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill:
_ Current year spending legislation. “People don’t understand it,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., emphasizing that the fiscal 2009 bill’s purpose is simply to keep most government agencies running until Sept. 30, the end of fiscal 2009.
The public instead sees headlines saying that the bill has an 8 percent increase over last year’s spending — and an 11 percent boost for Congress’s spending on itself — and that’s causing concern.
Two prominent Democratic senators said early in the budget debate that they opposed the package because it costs too much, and 20 Democrats in the House of Representatives voted no. Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., called the measure “bloated” and protested that it “requires sacrifice from no one, least of all the government.” Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., objected to the thousands of earmarks, or local projects inserted by lawmakers.
Obama has vowed to overhaul the earmark process, and boasted that the stimulus plan had no earmarks, but he plans to sign the 2009 bill despite the earmarks, saying it’s last year’s business, since most of the measure was written then.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., had inserted nearly 100 earmarks worth more than $78 million in the spending bill, but supported an amendment offered by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that would’ve stripped all earmarks out of the bill. Cantwell was expected to support the bill on final passage. She offered no explanation and declined to comment.
Feinstein acknowledges that’s hard for people to understand.