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House passes defense bill, rushes toward recess

The House has passed a $636 billion Pentagon spending bill that funds the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The House approved a $636 billion defense bill Wednesday that funds the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and provides a 3.4 percent pay hike for military personnel.

The 395-34 vote on the Pentagon budget was the first of several the House is taking on must-do bills before it adjourns for the year at the end of the day. Others include raising the debt ceiling so the Treasury can continue borrowing money and acting on a $174 billion measure to stimulate job growth.

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 defense bill includes $128 billion for the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan but leaves for later budgeting for the troop surge in Afghanistan recently ordered by President Barack Obama.

The legislation includes short-term extensions, mainly for two months, of a number of programs that expire at the end of the year and Congress was unable to reauthorize.

Among those were several controversial provisions of the anti-terror USA Patriot Act; an act that shields doctors from a steep cut in Medicare payments; unemployment benefits and health care subsidies for the jobless and the federal highway and transit program.

The spate of short-term 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.

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, a tactic that Republicans opposed, saying unused bailout money should be used to reduce the federal deficit.

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.

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.