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Election 2010


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Originally published August 18, 2010 at 10:00 PM | Page modified August 23, 2010 at 3:32 PM

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The Truth Needle | Today, The Seattle Times launches a new feature to help voters discern fact from fiction between now and the November election. The Truth Needle will examine the claims of candidates and campaigns in the top races and decide whether they are true or false.
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The Truth Needle | False: Dino Rossi's claim on Patty Murray's spending

U.S. Senate candidate Dino Rossi has claimed that Sen. Patty Murray has voted for every spending bill in Congress since 2004. But based on his campaign's own definition of a spending bill, that charge is false.

The claim: Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dino Rossi and his campaign have claimed in speeches, interviews and on his website that Sen. Patty Murray has voted for every spending bill in Congress since 2004.

What we found: The accusation is clearly intended to tar Murray as a profligate Democrat who's blithely running up the national debt.

Indeed, Rossi's campaign has tallied up a hefty tab: Murray voted for $700 billion for a bailout of financial firms and automakers, $787 billion for the economic-stimulus plan, $938 billion for the health-care overhaul, $34 billion to extend long-term unemployment benefits, $59 billion in supplemental funding for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — and on and on.

Yet by the Rossi campaign's own loose definition of a "spending bill," his charge against Murray isn't true.

For instance, Rossi spokeswoman Jennifer Morris includes in her list of spending bills Murray's vote for the $3.5 trillion fiscal 2010 federal budget, which Morris said would triple the national debt in 10 years. That budget resolution passed both chambers of Congress without a single Republican vote.

But budget resolutions are largely partisan documents. Murray voted against four consecutive budgets starting in fiscal 2004, when Republicans controlled the House, the Senate and the White House. Murray complained that those budgets cut taxes to the wealthy and were fiscally irresponsible.

What's more, the 2010 budget Murray backed would cut the federal deficit by 60 percent, or $824 billion, by 2014 from what it otherwise would have been, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C.

To be sure, Murray is a believer in the good of public spending.

Yet what takes much of the punch out of Rossi's criticism is that when it comes to the 12 annual spending, or appropriations, bills that fund the federal government, Murray is hardly alone in voting yea. Many appropriations bills pass by solid bipartisan majorities.

Even massive emergency-spending proposals sometimes get GOP backing.

That Wall Street bailout that paved the way for the federal government's partial ownership stakes in Goldman Sachs, General Motors and other troubled companies? It was proposed under President Bush and backed by 39 Democrats and 34 Republicans in the Senate — including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Without context and details, yes or no votes on spending bills are "almost meaningless as an indicator" of a lawmaker's record, argues Thomas Mann, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution, a public-policy think tank in Washington, D.C.

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Mann noted that the current federal budget deficit was made worse by Bush's decision in 2003 to push for prescription-drug coverage for seniors — the biggest expansion of Medicare since its inception and not paid for. Murray voted against it.

What matters most, Mann said, is less a vote itself than its intent and effect.

Our verdict: Rossi's claim on its face is false. And as a yardstick for the discerning voter, it's unenlightening.

Seattle Times staff reporter Kyung Song: 202-662-7455 or ksong@seattletimes.com

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