U.S. Senate Democrats Tuesday used a procedural vote to block legislation that would fund most non-military government operations for the current budget year. It is an embarrassing development for the Republican majority as President Bush prepares to deliver his State of the Union address to Congress later in the day.
Senate Republican leaders failed to find the 60 votes necessary to end debate on the spending measure and clear the way for final passage.
The measure, which the House of Representatives passed last month, would fund most government operations outside military activities, for which spending bills already have been passed. The bill includes money for 11 of 15 federal agencies, and funds activities ranging from foreign aid and the global fight against AIDS to operations at the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. space program.
Before the vote, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist warned Senators against blocking the legislation. "Failure to pass this omnibus appropriations bill to approve this legislation will really shortchange, curtail our efforts in fighting terrorism. It would weaken our food security system, it would create hardships for millions of veterans. It would put at risk millions of lives of those who suffer from HIV and AIDS overseas," he said.
But Democrats blocked the bill because they oppose several provisions backed by the White House. Among them is a proposal to delay by two years rules requiring country-of-origin labels on beef.
The Bush administration believes the rules are costly. But in the wake of a case of mad cow disease traced to an animal imported from Canada, Democrats are demanding the rules be implemented as required under current law by September 30.
Democrats also are opposed to a provision that would change overtime rules, arguing they would deny millions of workers the right to overtime pay.
Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle says Democrats do not want to kill the bill, only amend it. "We should take the time to fix the bill's problems because they affect millions of American families. We owe it to them to take the time to do it right," he said.
But Republicans say the rules under which the bill was crafted do not allow the legislation to be changed. They hope to hold another vote on the package for later this week, and if that fails, warn that most non-military spending would be held at last year's levels. That would mean cuts in new funding for the programs covered under the bill, including U.S. assistance for Israel, Egypt and Jordan.
Congress should have completed its work on the budget by the start of the fiscal year, which began October 1.