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US $1 trillion bill awaits Obama signature

17 January 2014, 13:49

Washington - Marking a truce after years of fiscal feuding in Washington, Congress passed a $1.1 trillion spending package on Thursday that effectively ended the threat of an election-year government shutdown.

The Senate voted 72 to 26 to approve the massive bill, in a show of bipartisanship after the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday for the measure to fund the federal government through September.

The package now goes to President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign it.

"We're a little late, but we have gotten the job done", said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairperson Barbara Mikulski, acknowledging Congress completed the job more than three months into the fiscal year.

All Senate Democrats supported the spending package and conservative opposition cracked, with 17 Republicans voting in favour.

In addition to the discretionary $1.012 trillion, the measure includes $92bn for overseas military operations, mainly the war in Afghanistan, and $6.5bn for natural disaster relief.

Passage of the bill "marks a positive step forward for the nation and our economy", the White House's office of management and budget director Sylvia Burwell said in a statement.

Both parties had plenty to tout in the 1 582-page bill.

Bickering lawmakers

Republicans claimed they reined in federal spending for a fourth straight year by freezing new funding for Obama's health care reforms known as Obamacare, reducing foreign aid and cutting money to the internal revenue service and transportation security administration.

Democrats cheered billions of dollars in additional spending for preschool programmes like 'head start', border security and the FBI, as well as for expanded medical research.

Senate Democrat Tom Carper said the vote marked "another small step forward" after the landmark compromise reached by the warring sides last month when they agreed to a two-year budget deal.

"I'm hopeful that today's vote signals that manufactured crises, like the harmful October government shutdown that cost our economy $20bn, are a thing of past."

Bickering lawmakers failed to agree on a spending framework last year, plunging government into a 16-day shutdown while politicians haggled over how to fund federal operations and not increase the debt.

But with polls showing more Americans blaming Republicans than Democrats for the 2013 shutdown, chances would seem remote that lawmakers would trigger a similar fiasco next October, just one month before mid-term congressional elections.

Despite the savings trend, overall federal expenditures are set to rise slightly in 2014 as the deal erases automatic spending cuts that were to kick in on 1 January for the next two years.

Several Tea Party-backed lawmakers, including Senators Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, voted no because the measure does not slash enough from the nation's $17.3 trillion debt.

"This omnibus spending deal does a great job of letting Washington grow bigger, more in debt and more dysfunctional for another year, but it's a terrible way to make the American dream a reality for more Americans", Rubio said.

No time to read

But the wide bipartisan votes in both chambers dealt a hammer blow against the Tea Party movement that staunchly opposed the bill, and Senate Republicans were able to defuse a threat by Cruz to force a showdown over defunding Obamacare altogether.

"It's certainly far better than the alternative, which would be another confrontation, another government shutdown and another giant step further away from establishing some sense of regular order", Senator Richard Shelby, the top appropriations committee Republican, told his colleagues.

Cruz nonetheless revived a complaint that lawmakers did not have sufficient time to read the bill made public only late on Monday.

He suggested no member of Congress had read it in its entirety, not even himself, but "I don't need to, to vote against it", Cruz said.

With the spending measure in the books, lawmakers head home for a one-week recess. But they will return facing a new sticking point: the need to raise the US debt ceiling.

"7th February, our borrowing authority runs out again", treasury secretary Jacob Lew warned. "At that point, Congress has to act."

Republican House Speaker John Boehner suggested he was not keen on another fiscal battle in such short order.

"All I know is that we should not default on our debt; we shouldn't even get close to it", Boehner said.



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