WASHINGTON – Senators worked through a December blizzard Saturday to pass legislation ensuring that U.S. troops are armed and the jobless don't lose their benefits — and take one more step toward a Christmas week showdown over healthcare.
The 88-10 early morning vote on the $626 billion defense spending bill and other must-pass items cleared Congress' plate of a major item of unfinished business and meant lawmakers immediately could resume their acrimonious debate on healthcare.
The impressive vote demonstrated sweeping support for paying for troops fighting overseas. 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 healthcare past Christmas.
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"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 provide votes, Democratic leaders gave the OK for Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent and Orthodox Jew who caucuses with Democrats, to go home for the eighth night of Hanukkah.
The defense bill itself, which contains $128 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and a 3.4 percent pay raise for the military, enjoyed wide support.
But there was GOP discontent over the Democratic decision to use the bill as the engine to carry several short-term extensions of programs set to expire because of the failure of Congress to deal with them separately.
Those include two-month extensions of unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, health care subsidies for those out of work, highway and transit funding, three provisions of the terrorism-fighting Patriot Act and legislation shielding doctors from a steep cut in Medicare payments.
Before leaving for the holidays, the Senate must also deal with one other politically sensitive issue, raising the debt ceiling, currently at $12.1 trillion, so the Treasury can continue to borrow.
The defense bill is the last of 12 annual spending bills that Congress must pass for the budget year that began Oct. 1. The bill passed the House on Wednesday by 395-34. Senate inaction, while not likely, could force the Pentagon to shut down programs.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had urged immediate passage because the latest stopgap measure to fund the Pentagon expired at midnight Friday. "Passage today will provide important support for our foreign policy and national security priorities and ensure continuity of funding for our troops in combat and for all of the Department of Defense," they said.
To make sure there is adequate time for the bill clerk to enroll the measure and present it to Obama, the Senate immediately approved a temporary measure to fund Pentagon operations through Dec. 23.
The bill contains $104 billion for weapons procurement. It has $6.8 billion for 30 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters while providing $465 million to develop an alternative engine for that plane, a program that the Pentagon and President Barack Obama tried to kill.
It does shut down programs for the F-22, a fighter the Pentagon considers ill-suited for today's insurgency warfare, and an expensive presidential helicopter.
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.
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