Senators OK defense budget bill, much left to 2010

Published 7:00 pm Saturday, December 19, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate cleared its year-end plate of some must-do work Saturday as it passed a critical budget bill that blends money for the Pentagon with additional help for the jobless.

The early morning 88-10 vote, taken as a blizzard buffeted the Capitol, permitted lawmakers to resume their acrimonious debate on health care, which Democrats now expect to finish by Christmas. The spending measure now goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.

It wraps up work on perhaps Congress’ most fundamental job: funding the annual budgets of Cabinet agencies and the rest of the government.

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But the $626 billion defense bill measure also demonstrated the failings of a Congress unable to address many of its most pressing tasks, such as passing a highway bill and making sure doctors don’t absorb a 21 percent hit in Medicare payments. In a boon for the wealthy, the estate tax temporarily will expire Jan. 1, even as people inheriting smaller amounts will face larger capital gains bills.

Having run out of time and patience, Democrats used the must-pass Pentagon measure to drag along several two-month extensions of expiring legislation. They include unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, health care subsidies for those out of work, highway and transit money and parts of the terrorism-fighting Patriot Act.

Resolving those issues in February would clutter next year’s agenda as Obama’s Democratic allies turn to trying to rein in the spiraling budget deficit and passing his upcoming request for additional troops in Afghanistan, which promises to be a very difficult task.

The impressive vote Saturday was evidence of the broad support for paying for troops fighting overseas and other elements of the Pentagon budget. The path to that point, however, was poisoned with partisanship as Republicans sought to derail the measure in an effort to stretch out action on health care past Christmas.

‘‘Senate Republicans have made us jump through every procedural hurdle just to have this vote and threatened to block funding for our troops — all in order to delay us from debating health care reform,’’ said Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. ‘‘It is incomprehensible that Republicans would even threaten to stop funding our troops and helping those who are struggling.’’

Just four Republicans joined with Democrats on an important test requiring 60 votes. Confident that Republicans such as Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi would vote with them, Democratic leaders gave the OK for Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent and Orthodox Jew who caucuses with Democrats, spend the eighth night of Hanukkah with his family.

Others strapped on their snow boots, grabbed their parkas and trooped to a Capitol that was engulfed in a whiteout by noon.

A Christmas eve vote looms on the health care bill. After that, the Senate also must deal with one other politically sensitive measure: raising the $12.1 trillion debt ceiling by $290 billion so the Treasury can continue to borrow to keep the government running and avoid a first-ever default on U.S. obligations.

The defense bill, which contains $128 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and a 3.4 percent pay raise for the military, enjoyed wide support. Just nine Republicans opposed pork barrel projects and some of the add-ons voted against the bill, as did anti-war Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin.

To ensure there’s enough time for the formal process of getting that bill to Obama, the Senate immediately approved a temporary measure to fund Pentagon operations through Dec. 23.

The bill caps a battle between Obama and Congress over weapons systems. Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates prevailed in their effort to kill the super-expensive F-22 fighter program and a much maligned and over-budget new presidential helicopter.

But proponents of an alternative engine for the next generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter outmaneuvered the administration, saving jobs in Ohio, Indiana and other states. The main F-35 engine is built in Connecticut by Pratt & Whitney, a division of United Technologies Corp.

In twin victories for the Boeing Co., the Senate measure includes $2.5 billion to fund 10 C-17 cargo planes assembled in Long Beach, Calif., which were not requested, and money for nine more F-18 Navy fighters than Obama requested. They would be assembled in St. Louis.

The president has yet to request funds for his recently announced troop increase in Afghanistan, and there is no money in the bill for that.

The measure also trims personnel and maintenance accounts from previous versions of the measure to pump up weapons procurement for Afghanistan and Iraq by almost $2 billion.

The defense measure would trim $900 million from the Pentagon’s $7.5 billion budget to train Afghan security forces. It would use the money to buy about 1,400 additional mine-resistance vehicles suited for rugged conditions in Afghanistan. Lawmakers say the training program can’t absorb that much money in the coming year, so they used it for other purposes.

The measure also caps an emotional debate over closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba. While it omits Obama’s $100 million request to close the facility, it permits Guantanamo detainees to be transferred to the U.S. to stand trial.