House passes defense bill with money for wars, back-home safety netsBy Andrew Taylor, AP
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
House passes defense bill, rushes toward recess
WASHINGTON — The House has passed a $636 billion Pentagon spending bill that funds the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and provides a 3.4 percent pay hike for military personnel.
Approving the defense bill was one of several major must-do tasks the House must address before its planned adjournment for the year at the end of the day.
To accomplish that, Democratic leaders attached to the defense bill numerous temporary extensions of programs about to expire at the end of the year. Those included two-month extensions for federal highway programs and unemployment benefits.
The defense bill includes $128 billion for the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but does not have money for the troop surge in Afghanistan recently ordered by President Barack Obama.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.
WASHINGTON (AP) — The House launched a frenetic day of legislating Wednesday, seeking to wrap up such end-of-session tasks as financing the military, helping the jobless and permitting the government to run up more debt.
Lawmakers, with one eye on the door, plan to conclude the day with a vote on a $174 billion jobs bill combining help for state and local governments with spending on infrastructure and extended benefits for the jobless. Half of that comes from diverting money from the Wall Street bailout fund.
“We’ve already put more than enough into shoring up Wall Street. Now we need to focus on creating jobs for the Americans that will rebuild our economy from the bottom up,” said Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine.
While House members look to vacations and trips to Copenhagen for the climate summit, the Senate is likely to work into Christmas week as Democrats make their final push to pass a health care overhaul bill.
The Senate won’t take up the jobs bill until next year and much of Wednesday’s House action would simply postpone until early next year a host of difficult issues, such as long-term financing of highway and other infrastructure projects and dealing with controversies surrounding the anti-terror USA Patriot Act.
An exception is the $636 billion Pentagon budget bill, which has been held back to serve as a locomotive to tug a bunch of unrelated provisions into law as Congress rushes to finish its work in the dwindling days of this year.
The defense bill includes $128 billion to finance the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but does not pay for the increase in troop strength in Afghanistan recently ordered by President Barack Obama.
Other measures to be included in the defense bill include two-month extensions of federal jobless benefits approved as part of the economic stimulus package in February, health insurance subsidies for the unemployed and several provisions of the Patriot Act that are set to expire.
The spate of two-month extensions is required because the House and Senate have simply run out of time to iron out Congress’ typical flood of year-end business, as the notoriously balky Senate is tied up with the health care overhaul bill.
“In a world of alternatives, that’s the one we have,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., acknowledging that the need to revisit so many controversial items early next year will be a huge headache for Democrats, who control Congress.
Particularly troublesome is must-pass legislation to make sure the government doesn’t default on its obligations when it hits its $12.1 trillion limit on borrowing in the coming days. The bill would boost the ceiling by $290 billion, giving the Treasury another six weeks of borrowing power before Congress will have to act again.
Plans for a far bigger increase in the federal debt limit that would have ensured lawmakers didn’t have to vote on it before next year’s midterm elections fell through.
Democratic leaders had proposed a huge increase of about $1.8 trillion, but ran into trouble from fiscal conservatives in their own party, particularly Senate moderates who wanted to tie the ceiling increase to creation of a task force on deficit reduction.
Hoyer also said the House will approve a stopgap measure to ensure that the Pentagon isn’t deprived of money because of congressional delays in approving the defense bill.
House action on all those bills would conclude its major tasks for the year. It still would have to wait for the Senate, where debate could spill over into Christmas week, depending on Senate action on the health care bill.
A host of tax issues would be ignored entirely, including action to prevent the estate tax from expiring Jan. 1. The tax is set to disappear in 2010 but return in 2011 at a rate of 55 percent for estates over $1 million. Also off the agenda is the extension of about 30 business-related tax breaks that will end Dec. 31.
It’s expected that Congress will have to act retroactively to address these tax issues next year.
Action on the defense bill would close out congressional action on 12 spending bills to fund agency operating budgets for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
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