Senate passes defense bill; vote on spending measure likely next week

The Capitol dome and the Capitol Christmas tree are illuminated late Thursday evening as Congress works to pass a $1.1-trillion U.S. government-wide spending bill and avoid a government shutdown.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

A massive $1.1-trillion spending bill to keep the government running was heading toward a final vote in Congress as the Senate raced to avert a shutdown and finish its work before the holidays.

The Senate was expected to approve the measure, which funds most of the federal government through the 2015 fiscal year, after the House narrowly rounded up bipartisan support for passage the night before. But hopes for a Friday vote dimmed and the debate was expected to push into next week.

Separately Friday, senators approved a must-pass defense bill, which set 1% pay raises for the troops and forms Pentagon policy through the fiscal year, despite concerns over a broad public lands package that was tacked on.


Some environmental groups opposed the land swaps, which set aside some federal rugged areas for conservation but opened other pristine lands for mining, logging and money-making uses.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has called the package a “mixed bag,” adding she was “profoundly disappointed” in one provision that will open Arizona lands sacred for Native Americans to a private copper mining venture.

The measure passed 89-11 and now goes to the president for his signature.

The spending bill has been more problematic for lawmakers. Both chambers faced deep objections -- from conservative Republicans, who were fighting to stop President Obama’s actions on immigration and healthcare, and liberal Democrats who want to jettison provisions they say favor Wall Street and wealthy campaign donors.

An eleventh-hour push by the White House, including personal calls from Obama to wavering Democratic lawmakers, helped secure support in the House, even though it exposed a deep divide within the president’s party.

“It’s a compromise,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) as he opened the chamber on Friday morning. “There are senators who are unhappy with this legislation, and they’ll have a chance to make their objections heard.”

Congress was trying to wrap up its work before the holiday recess. The House has essentially finished, but the Senate may stay in session over the weekend or return early next week to complete the remaining items of one of the least-productive legislative periods in decades.

The Senate is also expected to confirm a handful of Obama’s nominees to become ambassadors, including to Iceland and Samoa.

After that, the Senate may turn its attention to the spending bill, which must be passed to avert a shutdown. Congress had faced a midnight Thursday deadline, but as the measure progressed through the House, lawmakers passed a 48-hour stopgap bill to give the Senate time to finish. The temporary measure expires at midnight Saturday. Another temporary measure approved by the House on Friday could extend the deadline to Wednesday.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has led liberal opposition to the spending package over two provisions -- one that loosens restrictions on certain types of derivatives that were at the core of the 2008 financial meltdown, and another that raises caps on donor limits to political parties.

On the other side of the aisle, conservative Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has vowed to use all procedural means available to stop Obama’s executive action to defer deportations for up to 5 million immigrants in the country illegally.

Both senators, however, have run up against the limits of their arguments. Few lawmakers want to be seen as responsible for shutting down the government -- as happened in 2013 as Republicans fought Obama over the healthcare law.

Moreover, many Democrats worry that this bill is the best deal they might get for the next two years, after Republicans take the majority of both chambers in the new year.

On Friday, the incoming House Budget Committee Chairman, Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), outlined sweeping plans -- following his predecessor, Paul D. Ryan, the former vice presidential nominee -- for continued slashing of federal money on almost all domestic programs, except for defense.

Many Republicans prefer to fast-forward to those efforts in the new year, when they will bolster their majority in the House and take control of the Senate, with a clean slate to launch their priorities, rather than revisiting the 2014 battles.

Republicans are hopeful they can stop Obama’s immigration actions in the new year, largely because the spending bill limited Homeland Security funds only until Feb. 27, setting up a showdown over immigration in the new Congress.

As retiring senators made often teary farewell addresses on the floor, the Senate still has other items on its docket.

Democrats have been pushing through Obama’s judicial and executive nominees before Republicans take control, and want to confirm the president’s picks for district courts and other key positions.

Republicans, and some Democrats, oppose Obama’s nominee for surgeon general, the Harvard-educated doctor Vivek Murthy, after the National Rifle Assn. objected to his advocacy for stricter gun laws.

Similarly, the president’s choice for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Sarah Saldana, could face a battle over the administration immigration policy.

But Democrats hope to confirm both, as well as the nominee for the Social Security Administration.

The Senate is also trying to extend the Terrorism Risk Insurance Program, which provides federal support for companies selling insurance against losses from terrorist attacks. The House approved a version of the bill that has resistance in the Senate. If nothing is done, the program expires Dec. 31.

Also still to be debated is a package of specialty tax breaks, including for the film industry, Puerto Rican rum makers and also teachers who buy their own school supplies. They tend to be extended each year, and are likely to be renewed before Congress is done.

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