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Congress goes into urgent mode; rushes to make it come for the holidays

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., signs the Post-9/11 Veterans Education Assistance Improvements Act surrounded by supporters and Congressmen during an enrollment ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington Friday, Dec. 17, 2010.(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Rushing to finish by Christmas, congressional Democrats worked Friday to secure Senate ratification of a new arms control treaty and to end the military’s ban on openly gay service members as they neared the end of two tumultuous years of single-party government.

Legislation to keep the federal government running until mid- to late February was also on the agenda, a matter for negotiations with emboldened Republicans who will take control of the House and add to their numbers in the Senate come January.

President Barack Obama seized one legislative triumph in the lame-duck session as Congress voted early Friday to extend tax cuts and unemployment benefits. He was looking for several more on his wish list — the arms control treaty and repeal of the military gay ban — to close out a politically tough year.

But the fate of those items were less certain as hard feelings lingered in the Senate.

“This body operates in an environment of cooperation and comity. That very much is not in existence today,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Angering Republicans was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s addition of two issues long considered done — whether to end the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays in the military and a bill granting a path to legal status for foreign-born youngsters brought to this country illegally.

Both bills are crucial for the party’s liberal base but left Republicans crying partisanship. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., hinted strongly that bringing them up again could undercut support for the arms control treaty, which the Senate debated on Friday.

“It poisons the well on this debate on something that’s very, very important,” Corker said.

The U.S.-Russian treaty to cap nuclear warheads for both countries and resume weapons inspections is Obama’s top foreign policy priority. The pact, known as New START, requires support of two-thirds of the Senate. All 58 senators in the Democratic caucus are expected to back the treaty, but it needs Republican votes to be ratified.

“If they cared about START they would have done START in a businesslike fashion,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

After more than two days of debate, Republicans offered their first amendment to the pact — one that would effectively kill it if approved. Arguing that the treaty would limit U.S. missile defense options,McCain and Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming proposed striking a section of the preamble on missile defense.

McCain, Obama’s 2008 rival, had voted Wednesday to begin Senate debate on the treaty. His role in pushing the amendment caused concern among proponents.

Republicans and Democrats debated the amendment for hours, stretching into Friday night.

In the wake of the collapse Thursday night of an almost $1.3 trillion catchall spending bill, negotiators turned their attention to devising a stopgap measure to fund the government’s day-to-day operations through February.

Congress passed a stopgap measure to fund the government through Tuesday — so that lawmakers could have a weekend at home with their families but then return to Washington for wrap-up votes in the days before Christmas. That would give House and Senate negotiators time to come up with a fresh spending bill to fund the government through early next year.

While the Senate slogged through debate on the treaty Friday, the House raced through several measures.

It overwhelmingly passed a defense bill authorizing the Pentagon to spend nearly $160 billion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this budget year without major restrictions on the conduct of operations. The legislation has been held up because of controversy over a provision ending the ban on openly gay people serving in the military, but the House earlier this week removed the “don’t ask, don’t tell” provision from the bill, assuring its easy approval.

The Senate still must act on the measure for it to go to the president.

Debate on the defense bill concluded with a standing ovation for Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., a 34-year veteran of the House who was defeated in the November election.

Also on the congressional agenda is legislation to aid people who got sick after exposure to dust from the World Trade Center’s collapse in the Sept. 11, 2001, attack. And the Senate still needs to act on numerous judicial nominations, including James Cole, Obama’s choice for deputy attorney general.

In the House, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., summed up the mood in the waning days of the year.

“I want to get home just like you do,” Hoyer told his colleagues, explaining that he lived alone and had to put up the Christmas decorations.


Associated Press writers Jim Abrams and Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.

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