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Published: Friday, 11/18/2011

Congress OKs plan to avert shutdown

Weekend deadline pushed to Dec. 16

BLADE NEWS SERVICES

WASHINGTON -- A weekend shutdown of the federal government was averted Thursday when Congress approved a spending bill.

The Senate sent the measure to President Obama for his signature on a 70-30 vote shortly after the House approved the bill, 298-121.

Congress' most basic task is to oversee the federal purse strings, yet lawmakers took the government to the brink of a shutdown in April and the edge of default in August. Another round of brinkmanship ensued in September over a vote to extend funding.

This time, lawmakers resolved their differences in an orderly manner.

"It's like a breath of fresh air has blown through this chamber," said Rep. Steven LaTourette (R., Ohio). "This wasn't a my-way-or-the-highway negotiation."

Passage was by comfortable margins, but the vote in both chambers highlighted Republican fissures over federal spending. House Republicans backed the legislation by just 133-101, while GOP senators voted heavily against the bipartisan bill, 30-17.

Many conservatives also were unhappy that the bill potentially would leave taxpayers on the hook for even more spending because it would expand the size of mortgages that could be insured by the Federal Housing Administration in wealthy areas from $625,500 to $729,750.

"Some say, 'Oh, the Tea Party, you shouldn't listen to them, they were angry people,'" Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.) said. "Well, I think they were deeply frustrated people and, yes, somewhat angry. Why shouldn't they be?"

The votes occurred against a backdrop of partisan gridlock within Congress' supercommittee, which has less than a week to agree on a debt-reduction plan.

Some Republicans on that panel have been pushing to include some tax increases as part of a deal, and that has upset Republicans who are adamant against abandoning the party's core stance against boosting levies.

Democrats supported the measure overwhelmingly, with only 20 in the House and none in the Senate voting "no."

Liberals mocked a provision blocking Obama Administration efforts to prod schools to put healthier foods on lunch menus, including a proposal to no longer consider the tomato paste on pizza to be a vegetable.

"What's next? Are Twinkies going to be considered a vegetable?" said Rep. Jared Polis (D., Colo.), who voted against passage.

Despite the objections, passage was never in real doubt.

Both parties were eager to avoid further tarnishing Congress' public image, which took a beating after the standoffs earlier this year.

"It's a good bill. It's not perfect but it's a lot better than the alternative," said Rep. Norm Dicks (D., Wash.), a top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.

The government's new fiscal year started Oct. 1 without enactment of any yearlong spending bills.

A temporary measure that has been financing federal agencies expires after midnight Friday.

The new legislation would keep the government's doors open through Dec. 16, giving lawmakers more time to catch up on their budget work.

It would also provide $182 billion to finance the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Agriculture, Commerce, and Justice, and many smaller agencies through the rest of the budget year.

To try winning over skeptics, GOP leaders told their rank-and-file that the bill would eliminate 20 federal programs. All were relatively small, including a $35 million Agriculture Department healthy food initiative and a $12 million National Science Foundation underground science lab.

They also noted that the bill provided none of the $8 billion Mr. Obama requested for building high-speed rail lines and none of the $322 million the President sought to establish a climate change office in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Mr. Obama's request for an additional $308 million for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which is responsible for implementing much of last year's financial law, was cut to $205 million.

Reductions were also included for NASA.

Democrats boasted that unlike an earlier House-passed version, the compromise bill lacked GOP language blocking enforcement of parts of last year's law overhauling the regulation of financial markets and preventing the government from regulating the RU-486 birth control pill.

They also said it included more money than Republicans wanted for providing food to poor women, children and older people; helping communities hire police officers; operating federal prisons; financing the National Science Foundation; and highway and transit programs.

The bill also would extend to Dec. 16 the deadline by which the ailing U.S. Postal Service must pay $5.5 billion to the Treasury for future retiree health benefits.



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