Spending bill aims billions toward Washington state

Rob HotakainenMcClatchy Washington Bureau

Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state had some oysters and Abita beer wheeled into her Capitol Hill office on a cart on Tuesday.

She didn’t drink any of the beer when it arrived, but she posed for pictures after Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana dropped off the food and drink, paying off a bet after the Seattle Seahawks beat the New Orleans Saints in a Sunday NFL playoff game.

“The beer is going to have to wait,” said Murray.

With the beer on ice, it seemed fitting on a day that Murray proclaimed victory on a $1 trillion spending bill that’s on the verge of passing Congress.

If approved, it would send billions of dollars to her home state for major defense projects, more money to clean up nuclear waste and new funding for a long list of transportation, housing and environmental projects.

It marked a milestone of sorts for Murray, who has worked in the trenches for years on budget and appropriations issues. That included long days of getting nowhere as she helped lead the congressional super committee that failed to develop a cost-cutting plan in 2011, setting the stage for automatic spending cuts that she then worked hard to try to undo.

Among the big-ticket expenditures now awaiting Washington state:

– $3 billion to build 16 Navy P-8A Poseidons, a submarine-hunting aircraft to be based at the naval station on Whidbey Island. The station would also get $85 million to build and expand its facilities.

– $2.15 billion to clean up the Hanford nuclear site, averting the planned layoff of 350 workers.

– $1.6 billion to build the next-generation of the KC-46A refueling tanker.

– And $153 million to pay for construction projects at Joint Base Lewis McChord. Murray said the money is aimed at paying for improvements to the airfield, maintenance hangar and the aviation battalion complex, part of a plan to help keep the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade based in the state.

The projects are included in a list of more than 40 specific items that Murray, the state’s senior senator, said would clearly benefit her state. Her office said the bill included “dozens of wins.”

And if some of them sound like earmarks _ a no-no in Congress these days _ Murray wasn’t apologizing.

“You know, when you have a budget that you put together for your home, you budget for paying for college for your kids, or you budget for fixing the roof on your house, or you budget for how much food you’re going to get,” she said in an interview. “That would be considered an earmark. When you put together a budget, that’s what a budget is: It’s delineating what the priorities are and how you’re going to spend that money.”

Both the House and Senate are expected to sign off on the massive appropriations bill this week.

Murray, the chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee and a veteran member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the bill would go a long way toward eliminating the automatic spending cuts that had been planned under the process known as sequestration.

“This bill is undoubtedly a significant win for Washington state,” said Murray.

Murray wasn’t the only member of the state’s congressional celebrating.

Two Democratic House members, Derek Kilmer and Denny Heck, said the bill includes $25 million to help clean up the Puget Sound, restore its salmon and make sure that it remains a “national environmental priority.” That’s much more than the $17 million that President Barack Obama had sought for recovery efforts, but the freshmen congressmen said the money will help protect thousands of jobs that rely on the Puget Sound and its surrounding waters.

Federal budget experts at The Heartland Institute – a free-market think tank in Chicago – panned the appropriations bill, saying it does not contain costs.

"This proposal essentially kicks the can down the road," said John Nothdurft, director of government relations. "Where is the leadership in Washington? Until long-term entitlements are reformed, taxpayers will be an economic hiccup away from being burdened with massively higher taxes.”

Approval of the bill would end the threat of another government shutdown this year.

Murray raised her national profile in the long deliberations that led to the spending bill. She teamed up Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, head of the House Budget Committee, to produce a budget agreement in December that set the framework for the new spending bill, helping get new language that removed some of the sting of the planned spending cuts.

Murray said the new budget and spending plan maintains defense spending at roughly current levels while replacing nearly two-thirds of the planned cuts in non-defense programs.

All 10 Washington state House members, including its four Republicans, voted for the two-year budget compromise that Murray and Ryan developed last month, and none of them criticized the new spending bill on Tuesday.

“The bill may not be perfect but it is a step in the right direction,” Republican Rep. Dave Reichert said in a statement. “It makes progress towards eliminating wasteful spending while making key investments in programs essential to our nation’s economic recovery.”

With the finish line in sight, Murray was most eager to highlight what the bill would mean for Washington state.

She won funding for a pet program for all branches of the military that would assigned trained military lawyers to represent victims of sexual assault.

She helped get more money for Head Start, rental housing, veterans’ programs and agricultural research. And she got more money for the Columbia River Crossing project and a study that will look at oversize loads in response to the collapse of the Skagit River Bridge last spring.

“Washington state is very dependent on having a federal government that works,” she said.

Murray said the new omnibus bill could even provide a template for future budget and spending negotiations, showing the public that divided government can work.

“People don’t want their country to fail,” she said. “I hope people take that lesson to heart.”

Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

By Rob Hotakainen
McClatchy Washington Bureau