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House rushes to finish its work for year

The House voted Wednesday to pay for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and ensure the jobless don't lose their benefits, spearheading a flurry of legislative activity as lawmakers hurried to finish their work for the year.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The House voted Wednesday to pay for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and ensure the jobless don't lose their benefits, spearheading a flurry of legislative activity as lawmakers hurried to finish their work for the year.

On the last day of what has been a tumultuous year, the House was also taking action to prevent the government from defaulting on its mushrooming debt and voting on a $174 billion package to stimulate job growth through infrastructure projects, help for teachers and first responders and extended safety nets for the unemployed.

The Senate, meanwhile, could be looking at another week of work as Democrats struggle to pass the health care overhaul bill and act on other must-do measures. It is expected to vote Friday or Saturday on the defense bill passed by the House.

The $636 billion Pentagon bill includes $128 billion to pay for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan but leaves for later negotiations on how to pay for the 30,000 additional troops recently ordered to Afghanistan by President Barack Obama. It includes a 3.4 percent pay increase for service members.

The measure passed 395-34 with almost no debate. Defense measures generally enjoy wide bipartisan support, although this year Republicans objected to using the legislation as the base bill to which other less popular measures were attached.

Those included two-month extensions on several acts that are to expire at the end of the year. There is continued unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, a 65 percent health insurance subsidy for the unemployed, highway and transit funding, three provisions of the anti-terror USA Patriot Act and an act that shields doctors from a 21 percent cut in Medicare payments.

Those short-term extensions, a result of the House and Senate failing to work out differences, will require Congress to revisit these issues in February and could spell trouble for the already crowded Democratic agenda. Democrats have said they want to devote the early days of next year to such critical issues as jobs, financial regulatory overhaul and a clean energy bill.

There was also grumbling on the usual inclusion of special projects requested by individual lawmakers. Taxpayers for Common Sense estimated that the bill contains 1,720 such projects worth $4.2 billion. One example was $960,000 for a sprinkler system for the Historic Fort Hamilton Community Club in New York City.

The minority party also sought to score political points on the need to raise the $12.1 trillion debt ceiling so the Treasury can continue borrowing, adding to the national debt.

House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD)(L-MD) speaks at a press conference where a plan to deal with executive compensation at companies which received capital under the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) was announced on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 18, 2009. REUTERS/Joshua RobertsJoshua Roberts / X01909

Democrats had wanted to raise the ceiling to nearly $14 trillion so that Congress would not have to address the issue until after next year's election but ran into opposition from deficit hawks in their own party who wanted to tie the legislation to either creating a deficit-reduction task force or passing "pay-as-you-go" legislation requiring that increases in the deficit be offset by tax increases or budget cuts.

In the end, Democrats settled for a $290 billion increase that will keep the government solvent for six more weeks. It passed 218-214 without a single Republican "yes" vote.

The $174 billion jobs package includes $75 billion for highway and transit projects and school renovation and keeping teachers and firefighters on the job and $78 billion to further extend unemployment insurance and health care subsidies. About $75 billion comes from diverting money from the Wall Street bailout fund.

The defense bill contains no money for new F-22 fighters, ceding to demands by Defense Secretary Robert Gates that Congress end funding for a plane that had its origins in the Cold War but is poorly suited for anti-insurgent battles in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also shuts down the much-criticized new presidential helicopter program.

Lawmakers, however, did defy the administration in budgeting $465 million to develop an alternative engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Air Force's multi-mission fighter of the future. The White House and Pentagon said the second engine program was unnecessary.

The bill cuts $900 million from the Pentagon's $7.5 billion budget to train Afghan security forces. In its place, Congress increased to $6.3 billion the money available to procure more than 6,600 mine-resistant vehicles.

It rejects Obama's request for $100 million to close the Navy-run prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but allows terrorist suspects held there to be transferred to the United States to stand trial. It continues a policy prohibiting the establishing of permanent bases in Iraq or Afghanistan.