WASHINGTON – Congress edged Thursday toward granting final approval to a $1.1 trillion package financing federal agencies this year, a bipartisan compromise that all but banishes the spectre of an election-year government shutdown and underscores lawmakers’ fatigue with budget battles.
Democratic leaders were hoping the Senate would vote on the immense spending measure as early as Thursday. The Republican-run House passed the package Wednesday in a lopsided 359-67 vote that illustrated how both parties could claim wins in the measure — and saw deep perils in fighting over it.
“In today’s era of shutdown, slowdown, slam down politics, where negotiating occurs on cable TV rather than committee rooms, we worked together, setting aside partisan differences,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said of her work on the bill with her House counterpart, Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky. “This is what the American people deserve.”
“It represents a middle ground on which I believe we can all comfortably stand,” said Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, top Republican on the Appropriations panel. “It’s certainly far better than the alternative, which would be another confrontation, another government shutdown.”
The 1,582-page legislation is a line-by-line follow-up to the budget compromise the two parties pushed through Congress in December that set overall spending limits for the next two years.
The bill lawmakers were considering this week finances federal agencies through September. With the November congressional elections coming just weeks later, Congress is all but sure to provide more money later to avoid an election-eve budget clash.
The legislation increases agency budgets by $26 billion over last year’s total. But it still leaves them $31 billion below where last year’s spending would have been if not for sequestration — budget-wide cuts triggered after lawmakers failed to agree to deficit-cutting savings.
Even so, conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., complained that lawmakers were ignoring an opportunity to eliminate wasteful programs and save taxpayers money.
“What we’re actually doing is digging the hole deeper,” Coburn said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., complained about a provision that The Washington Post reported was in a classified portion of the spending bill blocking President Barack Obama from transferring control of U.S. drone attacks on terrorists overseas from the CIA to the Pentagon.
“How many of my colleagues knew that this provision was in this mammoth appropriations bill? I’ll bet you a handful,” said McCain, a leading member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The measure let Republicans claim they have now restrained agency spending for four straight years. They won cuts to the Internal Revenue Service and Transportation Security Administration and foreign aid, restricted spending to implement President Barack Obama’s health care and financial regulation overhauls, and won renewal of provisions limiting federal assistance for abortions.
“Today the House came together to keep the government open while further reining in its out-of-control spending,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said.
Democrats touted extra spending for Head Start preschool programs, food aid for poor pregnant women and biomedical research, and there was more money for the FBI, NASA and the border patrol as well. Democrats claimed victories in protecting a requirement that some gun dealers report sales to the same buyer of multiple firearms and in blocking a GOP effort to curb federal regulation of utilities’ greenhouse gas emissions.
Even so, many Democrats voted reluctantly for the measure, unhappy that it didn’t include more for the Environmental Protection Agency and federal aid for school districts and handicapped students.
“We endanger our families and our future by shortchanging these programs,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said.
Just as important to many lawmakers was the bill’s signal to voters that members of Congress actually can run the country. The past two years have featured repeated standoffs over deficit reduction, raising the federal debt limit and other budget issues that have soured voters, making lawmakers reluctant to incense them further.
Passage of the legislation sends a positive signal to “all those ankle-biters and naysayers who say we can’t get anything done,” Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., said.
The measure also lets legislators put budget battles behind them and turn to campaign-season themes: for the GOP, Obama’s health care law, and for Democrats, boosting the incomes of low-earners and the middle class.
In the House, 64 of the 67 “no” votes came from Republicans, including many of the chamber’s most conservative members.
The legislation erases cuts Congress enacted last year in annual inflation increases in benefits for wounded military personnel who retire early and their survivors. Those cuts had drawn howls from veterans organizations.
The bill also blocks the government from enforcing regulations aimed at weaning consumers from today’s widely used but energy-eating incandescent light bulbs, and gives federal workers a 1 per cent raise, their first in four years.
It prevents the post office from ending Saturday deliveries to close its huge budget gap and bars the administration from transferring terrorist suspects held at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention centre to U.S. prisons.
Of the measure’s $1.1 trillion, $521 billion is for defence and $492 billion is for nondefense programs. In addition, the bill provides $92 billion for military action overseas, mostly in Afghanistan, and $7 billion for natural disasters.
To give the Senate time to debate the spending measure, Obama signed a measure that Congress sent him financing federal agencies through Saturday.
Associated Press writer Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.