As the national debt clock ticked past the ignominious $13 trillion mark overnight, Congress pressed to pass a host of supplemental spending bills to, among other things, fund the continuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, ramp up security on the U.S.-Mexico border and prevent teacher layoffs.
Taken together, the Democratic-led U.S. Congress is trying to find a way to pass about $300 billion more in unfunded spending before Memorial Day – a spending spree that rivals anything drunken sailors have been accused of.
The underlying war funding measure the congressional leaders hope to pass by the end of the week would bring the amount provided by Congress for the Iraq and Afghanistan war efforts to $1 trillion.
But lawmakers in both parties are using President Obama’s war funding request to advance unrelated pet initiatives like a $500 million administration request for border security and an Education Department request for a $23 billion teacher bailout.
In the House, Obama’s $63 billion request for war funding, disaster relief and aid to nations like earthquake-ravaged Haiti and war-torn Afghanistan has swelled to $84 billion under a draft measure being readied for a key panel vote on Thursday.
Democrats such as House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., are pushing $23 billion to help school districts avoid teacher layoffs, along with $6 billion to make up for a funding shortfall in Pell grants for low-income college students and lesser amounts to hire border patrol agents and help Mexico fight drug cartels.
Meanwhile, Senate Republicans are using a sleaker $58.8 billion version of Obama’s war funding bill to try to add billions of dollars to boost security along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Since the war funding measure is the only appropriations bill likely to pass before fall, it’s being eyed by lawmakers in both parties seeking to deal now with violence along the southern border, the Gulf oil spill disaster and a variety of domestic programs. But the pressure for more spending is running into resistance from lawmakers worried about out-of-control deficits and Congress’ reputation for extravagant spending.
The Senate measure, currently being debated on the floor, blends about $30 billion for Obama’s 30,000-troop surge in Afghanistan with more than $5 billion to replenish disaster aid accounts, as well as funding for Haitian earthquake relief, and a down payment on aid to flood-drenched Tennessee and Rhode Island.
Because of the need to attract GOP votes, Democrats have kept the Senate bill fairly “clean,” at least as emergency spending bills go. The measure comes in under Obama’s requests and won unanimous support from the Appropriations panel this month.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas is just one of several Republicans seeking to add money for border security. He’s offered a $2 billion amendment to award grants to state and local law enforcement agencies, provide new unmanned surveillance aircraft, and hire hundreds of immigration and border agents, among other steps.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., offered an amendment to provide $250 million to send 6,000 National Guard troops to the Mexican border. Democrats will consider countering with a proposal of their own in the wake of a White House announcement that Obama would seek $500 million to send 1,200 guardsmen to the border and take other border security steps.
Lawmakers also have loaded up a separate bill that originally was intended to extend expired tax breaks and provide expanded unemployment benefits through the end of the year. The bill has grown into a nearly $200 billion grab bag of unfinished business that lawmakers hope to complete before Memorial Day.
The bill includes $1 billion for summer jobs programs, $1.5 billion in aid to farmers who had crops damaged by natural disasters and $4.6 billion to settle two long-running lawsuits against the government, one by black farmers claiming discrimination and one by American Indians over the government’s management of their land.
In all, the bill would add $134 billion to the federal budget deficit, drawing opposition from Republicans and some Democrats. House leaders said Tuesday they were determined to pass the bill this week to avoid allowing jobless benefits to expire for thousands of people.
But the measure has been delayed while House leaders round up support, which could mean the Senate might have too little time to act before next week’s Memorial Day recess.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.