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Congress Readies Huge Year-End Spending Bill

Tuesday, 08 Dec 2009 04:21 PM

WASHINGTON -- Senior lawmakers are wrapping the budgets of nine Cabinet agencies into a $1.1 billion spending bill they hope to complete by Christmas, a top Democrat said Tuesday.

The measure would combine six of the dozen annual appropriations bills for the budget year that began Oct. 1. It combines a huge increase in foreign aid with an 18 percent cut to a program that helps states with the cost of incarcerating criminal illegal immigrants.

The proposal would permit detainees held at the Guantanamo Bay detention center to be transferred to the U.S. to stand trial but not to be released.

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The bill reflects Democrats' control of Congress and the White House. A long-standing ban on the funding of abortion by the District of Columbia government would be overturned, as would a ban on that city's needle exchange programs. It would phase out a Washington, D.C., school voucher program favored by Republicans.

There's $2.5 billion for high-speed rail programs, which comes on top of $8 billion approved earlier this year as part of President Barack Obama's economic stimulus program. A program that subsidizes flights to and from rural airports, sometimes at thousands of dollars per ticket, would receive $175 million, a 30 percent increase.

The proposal would let Amtrak passengers transport firearms if they are unloaded and in a securely locked container checked in a baggage car.

And it would set up an appeals process for the 3,000 car dealerships closed by General Motors and Chrysler earlier this year. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said dealers challenging closure decisions could enter binding arbitration.

Hoyer, D-Md., confirmed the spending plan. All the details were not immediately available. House and Senate aides working on it described some of the elements on condition of anonymity because the deal was not yet public.

The measure is generous throughout, especially with foreign aid and State Department accounts, which receive a 33 percent increase to almost $49 billion. Commerce, Justice and science would get a 12 percent boost on average, while the section funding the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education would receive a 7 percent increase.

All told, the measure blends $443 billion for the daily operating budgets of the nine Cabinet departments with more than $600 billion for benefits such as Medicare and Medicaid.

Republicans say Democrats are spending too much as the government runs deficits in the range of $1.4 trillion a year. Still, most are happy to join Democrats in claiming their share of thousands of home-state projects such as community development grants, rural health centers, road projects, and grants to local law enforcement agencies for new equipment.

Lawmakers largely rejected budget cuts unveiled by Obama in May. For example, Obama proposed killing the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, which helps states with the cost of jailing illegal immigrants charged with crimes, budgeted at $400 million for the current year. The proposal would provide $330 million.

The bill covers Commerce; Education; Health and Human Services; Justice; Labor; State; Transportation; Treasury; and Veterans Affairs.

A $626 billion measure funding the Pentagon would advance later and is likely to carry a variety of wrapup legislation.

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