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Congress readies huge year-end spending bill

Congressional negotiators sealed agreement Tuesday night on sweeping spending legislation that boosts housing and heating subsidies but curbs President Barack Obama's requests for aid to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Congressional negotiators sealed agreement Tuesday night on sweeping spending legislation that boosts housing and heating subsidies but curbs President Barack Obama's requests for aid to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The move comes as lawmakers wrapped the budgets of nine Cabinet agencies into a $1.1 trillion spending bill they hope to complete before a stopgap measure expires Dec. 18.

The measure would combine six of the dozen routine 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 continues current policy that permits detainees held at the Guantanamo Bay detention center to be transferred to the United States to stand trial but not to be released.

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 $200 million, a 47 percent increase.

But while the measure provides a huge boost to foreign aid, Democrats forced a $151 million cut to Obama's almost $2.8 billion request for economic and security aid to Afghanistan. Obama's $1.6 billion request for aid to Pakistan would be cut $124 million.

All told, the measure blends $447 billion for the daily operating budgets of the nine Cabinet departments with more than $600 billion for benefits such as Medicare and Medicaid.

The measure would also 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.

And in a victory for gun rights advocates, Amtrak passengers could carry handguns in their checked baggage. Amtrak riders who give the railroad 24 hours notice could transport firearms that are unloaded and in a securely locked container checked in a baggage car, giving them rights comparable to those enjoyed by airline passengers. The policy would go into place within a year.

The agreement was sealed at a House-Senate negotiating session Tuesday evening. A House vote could happen as early as Thursday. Summaries were released by the appropriations committees.

The measure is generous throughout, especially with foreign aid and State Department accounts, which receive a 33 percent increase to almost $49 billion. A program that delivers heating subsidies for the poor would receive $5.1 billion, almost 40 percent more than Obama requested.

Veterans medical programs would receive a 10 percent increase over current levels while the State Department would receive a 16 percent increase for diplomatic operations.

NASA would receive a $942 million boost, to $18.7 billion, and the Census Bureau's budget would more than double, to $7.3 billion, to conduct next year's national head count.

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.

For example, no sooner had the session closed than Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., issued press releases claiming credit for so-called earmarks such as $1 million to combat methamphetamine and $500,000 for police communications equipment upgrades for the City of Montgomery and Montgomery County.

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 budget for the White House drug "czar" to run a national media campaign, however, would be cut more than one-third, reflecting doubts about its effectiveness.

The bill covers Commerce, Education, Health and Human Services, Justice, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury and Veterans Affairs. Five other spending bills covering food and farm programs, the Energy Department and water projects, the environment and homeland security programs have already been passed and signed by the president.

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