WASHINGTON - The House voted Wednesday to pay for wars in
Iraq and Afghanistan and assure 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 is
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, including the defense bill passed by the House.
The $636 billion Pentagon bill includes $128 billion to pay for the
ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but leaves for later
negotiations on how to pay for the troop surge in Afghanistan recently
ordered 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 members. 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 Brooklyn.
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.
Democrats had sought 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 hikes or
In the end, Democrats settled for a $290 billion increase that will keep the government solvent for another six weeks.
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 funds 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 Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles.
It rejects Obama's request for $100 million to close the Guantanamo
Bay prison but allows Guantanamo detainees to be transferred to the
United States to stand trial. It continues a policy prohibiting the
establishing of permanent bases in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The defense bill is H.R. 3326.
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