Senators easily pass $1.1 trillion spending bill

By By The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Congress sent President Barack Obama a $1.1 trillion government-wide spending bill Thursday, easing the harshest

effects of last year’s automatic budget cuts after tea party critics chastened by October’s partial shutdown mounted only

a faint protest.

The Senate voted 72-26 for the measure,

which cleared the House a little more than 24 hours earlier on a

similarly lopsided

vote. Obama’s signature on the bill was expected in time to

prevent any interruption in government funding Saturday at midnight.

The huge bill funds every agency of

government, pairing increases for NASA and Army Corps of Engineers

construction projects

with cuts to the Internal Revenue Service and foreign aid. It pays

for implementation of Obama’s health care law; a fight

over implementing “Obamacare” sparked tea party Republicans to

partially shut the government down for 16 days last October.

Also included is funding for tighter regulations on financial markets, but at levels lower than the president wanted.

The compromise-laden legislation

reflects the realities of divided power in Washington and a desire by

both Democrats and

Republicans for an election-year respite after three years of

budget wars that had Congress and the White House lurching from

crisis to crisis. Both parties looked upon the measure as a way to

ease automatic spending cuts that both the Pentagon and

domestic agencies had to begin absorbing last year.

All 53 Democrats, two independents and 17 Republicans voted for the bill. The 26 votes against it were all cast by Republicans.

Obama’s budget director, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, called the bill’s passage a positive step for the nation and the economy.

“It ensures the continuation of critical services the American people depend on,” she said in a blog post.

Shortly before the final vote, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, delivered a slashing attack on Senate Democrats, accusing them of ignoring the problems caused by the health care law. “It is abundantly clear that millions of Americans are being harmed right

now by this failed law,” Cruz said.

Unlike last fall, when he spoke for 21

straight hours and helped force the government shutdown over defunding

“Obamacare,”

this time he clocked in at 17 minutes and simply asked the Senate

to unanimously approve an amendment to strip out Obamacare

funding. Democrats easily repelled the maneuver.

The 1582-page bill was really 12 bills

wrapped into one in negotiations headed by Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky.,

and Sen. Barbara

Mikulski, D-Md., respective chairmen of the House and Senate

Appropriations committees, and their subcommittee lieutenants.

They spent weeks hashing out line-by-line details of a broad

two-year budget accord passed in December, the first since 2009.

The bill, which cleared the House on a

vote of 359-67, increases spending by about $26 billion over fiscal

2013, with most

of the increase going to domestic programs. Almost $9 billion in

unrequested money for overseas military and diplomatic operations

helps ease shortfalls in the Pentagon and foreign aid budgets.

The nuts-and-bolts culture of the

appropriators is evident throughout the bill. Lower costs to replace

screening equipment,

for example, allowed for a cut to the Transportation Security

Administration. Lawmakers blocked the Agriculture Department

from closing six research facilities. And the Environmental

Protection Agency is barred from issuing rules on methane emissions

from large livestock operations.

Another provision exempts disabled

veterans and surviving military spouses from a pension cut enacted last

month. House Speaker

John Boehner, R-Ohio, signaled in a brief hallway conversation

with The Associated Press that he would oppose a broader drive

to repeal the entire pension provision, which saves $6 billion

over the coming decade by reducing the annual cost-of-living

adjustment for working age military retirees by 1 percentage

point.

The National Institutes of Health’s

proposed budget of $29.9 billion falls short of the $31 billion budget

it won when Democrats

controlled Congress. Democrats did win a $100 million increase, to

$600 million, for so-called TIGER grants for high-priority

transportation infrastructure projects, a program that started

with a 2009 economic stimulus bill.

Civilian federal workers would get their first pay hike in four years, a 1 percent cost-of-living increase. Democrats celebrated

winning an addition $1 billion over last year for the Head Start early childhood education program and excluding from the

bill a host of conservative policy “riders” advanced by the GOP.

Rogers won two provisions backed by the

coal industry. One would block the EPA and Corps of Engineers from

working on new

rules on “fill material” related to the mountain top removal

mining. Another would keep the door open for Export-Import Bank

financing of coal power plants overseas.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, a tea party

favorite, didn’t mention the measure’s funding of Obamacare in a floor

speech earlier in

the week; instead he complained at length that the measure dropped

funding of a federal program that sends payments to Western

states in which much of the land is owned by the federal

government and therefore can’t be taxed by local governments.