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Senate Blocks Moratorium on Earmarks

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WASHINGTON — Even with the backing of all three presidential candidates, Senate old-timers in both parties decisively killed a proposed one-year ban on lawmakers' home-state pet projects.

The 71-29 vote Thursday night against the earmark moratorium came as Congress pressed ahead with a budget plan that would saddle millions of Americans with higher tax bills in three years by allowing some of President Bush's tax cuts to die after he leaves office.

The House passed a $3 trillion federal budget plan that would provide generous increases to domestic programs but bring the government's ledger back into the black by letting all of Bush's tax cuts expire at the end of 2010 as scheduled.

The Senate endorsed extending $340 billion of Bush's tax cuts but balked continuing all of them.

All three major presidential candidates interrupted their campaigns to cast votes on the budget plan, which is nonbinding but highlights the difficult choices on taxes and spending facing the next president and Congress. Binding votes on the expiring Bush tax cuts will be left to his successor and the Congress that's elected in November.

The practice of inserting "earmarked" spending into legislation is seen as a birthright by lawmakers in both parties _ and a right under the power of the purse awarded to Congress by the Founding Fathers.

Earmarks have exploded in number and cost in recent years, accompanied by charges of abuse and public outrage over egregious examples like the proposed "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska, which would have cost more than $200 million to serve an island with a population of about 50.

"This may be the last bastion in American where they don't get it. Americans are sick and tired of the way we do business in Washington," McCain told reporters afterward. "As president, I promise the American people ... the first earmarked, pork-barrel bill that comes across my desk, I'll veto it."

The five-year budget plan passed the House on a 212-207 vote, with Republicans unanimously opposing it over what they argued was $683 billion in tax increases.

In the Senate, McCain, R-Ariz., voted to extend the full roster of tax cuts, which he opposed seven years ago as being tilted in favor of the wealthy.

Democratic rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois both voted to extend some of Bush's tax cuts. But they joined other Democrats in a 52-47 vote against extending $376 billion of them.

Republicans hope to use the votes as fodder for the heated presidential campaign and for congressional races. Lawmakers in both parties also were put on record for when the tax cuts actually expire in three years.

Said Republican Rep. Jim McCrery of Louisiana, "Democrats are quietly but very assuredly paving the way for a massive, economy-choking, tax increase."

Democrats said the plans would reverse years of deficits that have piled up during Bush's tenure. They said he squandered trillions of dollars in projected surpluses that were projected when he took office.

"The Democratic budget continues to move our nation in a new direction and to clean up the fiscal train wreck caused by failed Republican economic policies over the last seven years," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

On the subject of tax cuts, Democrats in the House defeated a GOP plan that would have extended Bush's reductions _ and went further by eliminating the alternative minimum tax, which was originally designed years ago to make sure rich people pay at least some tax but now threatens more than 20 million additional taxpayers with increases averaging $2,000.

Some 38 mostly moderate Republicans voted against their party's plan, which would have made cuts in popular programs like Medicare, housing, community development and the Medicaid health care program.

Congress' annual budget debate involves a nonbinding resolution that sets the stage for later bills affecting taxes, benefit programs such as Medicare, and the annual appropriations bills. Unless such follow-up legislation is passed, however, the budget debate has little real effect and is mostly about making statements about party priorities.

This is such a year. Congress rarely tackles difficult budget issues as elections loom, and a standoff with Bush means that Democrats may even take a pass on advancing the 12 annual appropriations bills.

The first year of an administration is typically when heavy lifting on the budget is done, but all the candidates' campaign plans seem to promise more than they can deliver. McCain's tax cuts would require applying a meat cleaver to spending, while the Democrats promise spending that would enlarge the deficit or require too-large tax increases.

The White House forecasts the deficit for the current year at $410 billion, a near record.

Democrats trumpeted their plan for putting the budget back in balance while also making investments in infrastructure, education, community development, clean energy and other programs. It also would avoid $196 billion worth of Bush-proposed cuts to Medicare and the Medicaid health care program for the poor and disabled.

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The bills are H. Con. Res. 312 and S. Con. Res. 70.

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On the Net:

House Budget Committee: http://budget.house.gov

Senate Budget Committee: http://budget.senate.gov