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Monday, December 4, 2023

Senate: Next stop for spending bill

Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid of Nev., left, talks with Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell of Ky. on Capitol Hill (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid of Nev., left, talks with Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell of Ky. on Capitol Hill
(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

It’s now up to the Senate to pass a huge $1.1 trillion spending bill to keep the government running, but not before a battle between old school veterans and new breed freshmen such as tea partier Ted Cruz and Elizabeth Warren, a liberal with a national following.

The smart money’s on old school types such as Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

The measure passed the House on Thursday after a day of drama but by a relatively comfortable 219-206 vote. The vote came after GOP leaders sent the House into a seven-hour recess to give the White House time to lobby Democrats angry that the measure weakens rules on trading risky financial products known as derivatives and allows wealthy donors to pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into political parties.

In the end, 57 House Democrats voted for the bill, including two of the party’s top three leaders. Democrats argued that there was too much good in the bill to scuttle it and get a worse deal next year when Republicans seize control of the Senate.

“Hold your nose and make this a better world,” Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., said.

The measure would fund nearly every Cabinet agency through September 2015, awarding increases for health research, securities regulation, processing a backlog of rape kits and foreign aid. Republicans won cuts to the IRS and the Environmental Protection Agency. The 1,764-page bill is thick with carefully negotiated trade-offs on spending and policy “riders” on the environment, abortion and the lead content of ammunition. Democrats succeeded in getting the most politically toxic riders off the legislation.

Reid said he hopes the measure will clear the Senate for Obama’s signature on Friday, though a vote may not come until the weekend.

Hours before the vote, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California delivered a rare public rebuke to Obama, saying she was “enormously disappointed” he had decided to embrace legislation that she described as an attempt at blackmail by Republicans. But Pelosi never lobbied Democrats to kill the bill, and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland and No. 3 Democrat Jim Clyburn of South Carolina were a steadying force in support of the measure.

Republicans, meanwhile, limited their defections to 67, mostly conservatives seeking an immediate confrontation with Obama over his moves to relax enforcement of immigration laws. Others simply refuse to vote for spending bills.

But Republicans scored many wins in the legislation, seizing on new leverage gained after their sweep in last month’s midterm elections.

One provision particularly galling to many Democrats would relax new bank regulations that force riskier trades in financial instruments known as derivatives into separate affiliates unprotected by deposit insurance.

The White House stated its own objections to the bank-related proposal and other portions of the bill in a written statement. Even so, officials said Obama and Vice President Joe Biden both telephoned Democrats to secure the votes needed for passage, and the president stepped away from a White House Christmas party reception line to make last-minute calls.

In addition to the government funding, the bill also sets a new course for selected, highly shaky pension plans.

Despite the day’s uncertainty, there was no threat of a shutdown in federal services — and no sign of the brinkmanship that marked other, similar episodes. Instead, the House and Senate quickly passed a measure providing a 48-hour extension in existing funding to give the Senate time to act on the larger bill. Obama promptly signed it.

Opposition in the Senate will be led by liberals such as Warren, D-Mass., who firmly opposes the banking provision, and conservatives such as Cruz, R-Texas, who is incensed over immigration. But once Reid and McConnell forge an alliance, the fix is in and passage is only a matter of time.

The spending measure was one of a handful on the year-end agenda, with the others including an extension of expiring tax breaks and a bill approving Obama’s policy for arming Syrian forces fighting Islamic State forces. A bill extending the government’s terrorism insurance backstop could get tripped up by procedural hurdles.

A provision in the big bill relating to financially failing multiemployer pension plans would allow controversial cuts for current retirees, and supporters said it was part of an effort to prevent a slow-motion collapse of a system that provides retirement income to millions.

“The multiemployer pension system is a ticking time bomb,” said Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who negotiated the agreement with Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who is retiring after 40 years in Congress.


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