WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats controlling the Senate abandoned on Thursday a huge catchall spending measure combining nearly $1.3 trillion worth of unfinished budget work, including another $158 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The 1,924-page bill collapsed of its own weight after an outcry from conservatives who complained it was stuffed with more than $8 billion in homestate pet projects known as earmarks.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., gave up on the bill after several Republicans who had been thinking of voting for it pulled back their support.
GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky threw his weight against the bill in recent days, saying it was "unbelievable" that Democrats would try to muscle through in the days before Christmas legislation that usually takes months to debate.
"Just a few weeks after the voters told us they don’t want us rushing major pieces of complicated, costly, far-reaching legislation through Congress, we get this," McConnell said. "This is no way to legislate."
The turn of events was a major victory for earmark opponents like Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who for years have been steamrolled by the old-school members of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.
But the spending barons saw their power ebb in the wake of midterm elections that delivered major gains for Republicans — with considerable help from anti-spending tea party activists.
"We just saw something extraordinary on the floor of the United States Senate," a grinning McCain said.
Reid said he would work with McConnell to produce a short-term funding bill to keep the government running into early next year.
The catchall bill wrapped together 12 bills into a single foot-tall piece of legislation that Democrats had hoped to pass with just a couple of days’ worth of debate.
It was designed to bankroll the operations of every Cabinet agency for the budget year that started Oct. 1, funding the almost one-third of the federal budget that Congress has to pass each year.
The House and Senate typically spend months on the 12 annual spending bills, but Democrats didn’t bring even a single one to the Senate floor this year, an unprecedented collapse of an appropriations process.
The sinking of the bill was a setback for President Barack Obama, who supported it despite provisions to block the Pentagon from transferring Guantanamo Bay prisoners to the United States and fund a program to develop a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which the administration says is a waste of money.
Just Thursday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made a public push for the omnibus measure at an appearance at the White House, saying that operating under a stopgap measure frozen at current levels would be a major hardship for the Pentagon.
McConnell had earlier quietly backed the effort to produce the legislation, which had significant input from Republicans on the Appropriations panel.
But release of the bill on Tuesday sparked an outcry among the GOP’s conservative political base. Senate Republicans held two combative closed-door meetings in which the rank-and-file turned up the heat on those few Republicans who were considering voting for the bill.
McConnell proposed Thursday to keep the government running at current funding levels through Feb. 18. By then, Republicans will have taken over the House and bolstered their strength in the Senate, giving them greater leverage to force spending cuts.