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How Democrats work with tight purse

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After blitzing six top-priority bills through the House in their first 100 legislative hours, Democrats struck a quick deal on unfinished spending bills from the last Congress, and made it look easy.

It's the first test of whether the new majority on Capitol Hill can keep promises to voters to rein in federal budget deficits, yet also fund its party's defining priorities.

Lawmakers face tough deadlines: Money to run the government for fiscal year (FY) 2007 dries up on Feb. 15 unless Congress acts, and President Bush's budget for FY 2008 arrives at the Capitol this Monday morning. In a bid to move quickly, House Democrats precooked a master compromise with the Senate Wednesday that rolls all nine remaining spending bills into one.

The deal accepts the White House ceiling of $463.5 billion, avoiding a clash with Mr. Bush. But it carves out some $10 billion for "unmet needs," including veterans' healthcare, low-income housing, education, and some 500 research programs.

Not included were any new earmarks, or member projects, funding for a new round of military base closures, and the annual congressional pay raise. Republicans, who were not allowed to propose amendments on the Democratic bill, complained that they had been left out of the process, but more than one-quarter of the House GOP caucus voted for the bill.

"This is a process that was required by the failure of the last Congress to do its work," said House majority leader Steny Hoyer, before Wednesday's vote.

As the 109th Congress prepared to leave town in December, Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin, who now chairs the House Appropriations Committee, warned that by their "act of abdication" as the majority party, Republicans had "given up any right to criticize in any way whatever devices we have to use in order to dispose of the unfinished business of this Congress."

In Washington terms, $10 billion is not much in a spending cycle that totals more than $2 trillion. But it sends a strong signal, reinforcing what Democrats say will be a key issue in the 2008 election campaign: their commitment to help the middle class.

"It doesn't take a lot of money to get a lock on this issue. It takes some well-publicized votes," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "It's an indication of where their heads and their hearts are. In the arcane world of symbolic politics, they really hit pay dirt."

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