By ANDREW TAYLOR
WASHINGTON – A $1.1 trillion bill easing the harshest effects of last year’s automatic spending cuts neared final congressional approval Thursday with wide-scale bipartisan support after tea party critics chastened by last October’s government shutdown mounted only a faint protest.
A Senate vote Thursday evening on funding the government through next September was the only step remaining to getting the bill to the White House for President Barack Obama’s signature before a midnight Saturday deadline, when a temporary funding measure expires. The House passed the bill Wednesday with an overwhelming 359-67, bipartisan majority.
The huge bill funds the operations of virtually every agency of government, pairing increases for NASA and Army Corps of Engineers construction projects with cuts to the Internal Revenue Service and foreign aid. It cements a tight lid on government spending demanded by Republicans while paying for the implementation of Obama’s health care law and tighter regulations on financial markets, but at levels lower than the president wanted.
The compromise-laden legislation reflects the realities of divided power in Washington and a desire by both Democrats and Republicans for an election-year respite after three years of budget wars that had Congress and the White House lurching from crisis to crisis. Both parties looked upon the measure as a way to ease automatic spending cuts that both the Pentagon and domestic agencies had to begin absorbing last year.
Shortly before the final vote, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, delivered a slashing attack on Senate Democrats, accusing them of ignoring the problems caused by the health care law. “It is abundantly clear that millions of Americans are being harmed right now by this failed law,” Cruz said.
Unlike last fall, when he spoke for 21 straight hours and helped force a government shutdown over defunding “Obamacare,” this time he clocked in at 17 minutes and simply asked the Senate to unanimously approve an amendment to strip out Obamacare funding. Democrats easily repelled the maneuver.
The 1582-page bill was really 12 bills wrapped into one in negotiations headed by Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., respective chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations committees, and their subcommittee lieutenants. They spent weeks hashing out line-by-line details of a broad two-year budget accord passed in December, the first since 2009.
The bill increases spending by about $26 billion over fiscal 2013, with most of the increase going to domestic programs. Almost $9 billion in unrequested money for overseas military and diplomatic operations helps ease shortfalls in the Pentagon and foreign aid budgets.
The nuts-and-bolts culture of the appropriators is evident throughout the bill. Lower costs to replace screening equipment, for example, allowed for a cut to the Transportation Security Administration. Lawmakers blocked the Agriculture Department from closing six research facilities. And the Environmental Protection Agency is barred from issuing rules on methane emissions from large livestock operations.
Another provision exempts disabled veterans and surviving military spouses from a pension cut enacted last month. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, signaled in a brief hallway conversation with The Associated Press that he would oppose a broader drive to repeal the entire pension provision, which saves $6 billion over the coming decade by reducing the annual cost-of-living adjustment for working age military retirees by 1 percentage point.
The National Institutes of Health’s proposed budget of $29.9 billion falls short of the $31 billion budget it won when Democrats controlled Congress. Democrats did win a $100 million increase, to $600 million, for so-called TIGER grants for high-priority transportation infrastructure projects, a program that started with a 2009 economic stimulus bill.
Civilian federal workers would get their first pay hike in four years, a 1 percent cost-of-living increase. Democrats celebrated winning an addition $1 billion over last year for the Head Start early childhood education program and excluding from the bill a host of conservative policy “riders” advanced by the GOP.
Rogers won two provisions backed by the coal industry. One would block the EPA and Corps of Engineers from working on new rules on “fill material” related to the mountain top removal mining. Another would keep the door open for Export-Import Bank financing of coal power plants overseas.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, a tea party favorite, didn’t mention the measure’s funding of Obamacare in a floor speech earlier in the week; instead he complained at length that the measure dropped funding of a federal program that sends payments to Western states in which much of the land is owned by the federal government and therefore can’t be taxed by local governments.
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