Congress Clears $1 Trillion Budget Measure to Avert Shutdown

Saturday, 17 Dec 2011 11:46 AM

 

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The U.S. Congress cleared a $1 trillion spending bill to avert a government shutdown.

The Senate voted 67-32 for the spending measure today, a day after the House passed it 296-121. The bill goes to President Barack Obama. A stopgap plan keeping federal agencies operating was to expire last night, though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada had said the government should be unaffected if the Senate waited until today to vote. To be safe, lawmakers passed another temporary measure funding the government through today.

Lawmakers hailed the budget plan as a rare bipartisan compromise on spending in a year otherwise dominated by partisan and inconclusive debates over the U.S. budget deficit.

“After weeks of arduous negotiations on this package with our Senate counterparts, we’ve struck a fair, bipartisan compromise,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican, said yesterday. “No party got everything they wanted.”

The spending panel’s top Democrat endorsed the plan, calling it the sort of compromise demanded by divided government.

“It reflects the fact that neither party can pass this bill on its own in either the House or the Senate,” said Representative Norm Dicks, a Washington Democrat.

In the House, 86 Republicans voted against the bill; 149 Democrats supported it.

Funding Government Operations

The 1,200-page measure will fund the day-to-day operations of hundreds of government programs across 10 Cabinet agencies. The bill had been snarled in a dispute over how to extend a payroll-tax cut into 2012 as well as expanded unemployment benefits, which also expire at year’s end. The Senate passed the payroll tax cut bill, 89-10, earlier today, sending it to the U.S. House.

Lawmakers made some last-minute changes to the spending measure, including killing provisions targeting Obama’s Cuba policies. Republicans had included language blocking his decision to loosen restrictions on travel and sending money to the Communist country.

Florida Republicans such as Senator Marco Rubio blasted the decision, saying it would shore up the Cuban government. “It limits access to hard currency to a really tyrannical regime,” Rubio said. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart said it would “sell out the long-suffering Cuban people to appease the ruthless Castro dictatorship.”

Other Provisions

Representative Jose Serrano, a New York Democrat, said “the U.S. government should not be in the business of restricting travel to any country, no matter what the issues we have with their government.” He said “it is surreal to think that five decades after he took power, Fidel Castro is still a driving force in our national conversation.”

Some House members complained Republicans gave them only two days to review the 1,200-page bill and didn’t release more than 1,000 pages of additional explanatory documents until the night before the vote.

“Not one of us has read every page in this bill,” said Representative Steny Hoyer, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat. Representative Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, said “we’ll be discovering for months to come what’s actually in it.”

Though lawmakers were unable this year to shrink entitlement programs or raise taxes to reduce the budget deficit, they agreed to cut the roughly 40 percent of the federal budget that must be approved each year by Congress.

‘Real Cuts’

“Make no mistake -- there are real cuts here,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the ranking Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over education, health care and labor programs.

The bill cuts funding for Pell grants, which help 10 million Americans from low-income families attend college. Though the legislation maintains the current $5,550 maximum grant, it tightens eligibility standards by requiring recipients to have either a high-school diploma, GED or be home schooled.

It cuts the maximum number of semesters students may receive grants to 12 from the current 18. Those changes may affect 250,000 Americans, according to a preliminary estimate by the American Council on Education, a Washington group that advocates for colleges and universities.

The bill also eliminates the six-month grace period students receive after they leave school during which they don’t have to pay interest on their student loans.

The administration’s Race to the Top program, which awards competitive grants to schools, would be reduced by 20 percent.

Foreign Aid

Foreign aid will decline, with the U.S. Agency for International Development’s budget cut by 17 percent, according to the Republicans’ summary. The Environmental Protection Agency will be cut by 3 percent, on top of reductions approved earlier this year. The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, will see a 6 percent reduction. The Internal Revenue Service will be cut by 2 percent.

Democrats fended off a number of Republican initiatives, including proposals taking aim at environmental regulations and cutting federal funding for Planned Parenthood and NPR, the syndicator of public radio stations.

Republicans prevailed with language barring public funding of abortions in Washington, D.C. They also killed a Democratic proposal to increase the security fees charged to airline passengers. Airlines are charging more for checked baggage, Democrats complained, which was prompting more travelers to bring carry-on luggage and increasing the workload for the government’s security screeners.


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