Senate moves forward on transportation spending

WASHINGTON (AP) — A $108 billion measure

that would boost funding for infrastructure projects and housing

subsidies for the

poor is moving ahead in the Senate, highlighting the stark

differences between the Democratic-led chamber and the GOP House

over the budget.

The measure cleared a procedural hurdle by a bipartisan 73-26 vote Tuesday, and that sets up days of debate with the goal

of passing the measure next week.

But without a broader budget agreement in

place, the spending gains for Democratic priorities like road projects

and bridge

repairs are illusory. The huge measure spends about $10 billion

more than a House GOP version and is part of a budget framework

set up by Senate Democrats that seeks to replace deep cuts to

agency operating budgets with tax increases and more modest

curbs on spending.

The higher Senate spending levels permit

$550 million in transportation infrastructure grants first established

in the 2009

economic stimulus bill and a new $500 million fund for bridge

repair projects. The companion House measure contains no such

funding and cuts community development block grants to just $1.6

billion, about half the level called for by the Senate. The

Senate measure contains increases for Section 8 housing for the

poor that would allow those on years-long waiting lists to

get apartments while the House measure contains only enough

funding to keep current beneficiaries from losing their subsidies.

The measure is one of the 12 annual spending

bills that need to be passed each year to set Cabinet budgets. The

Democratic-led

Senate and GOP-controlled House are in sharp disagreement over the

budget and there's no sign the impasse will be broken anytime

soon. This means the government will largely remain on autopilot

under mandatory, across-the-board spending cuts that came

about as a consequence of Congress's failure to agree on a broader

budget.

As a result, the Senate measure as written

would be subject to those cuts. So even if it were to somehow advance to

President

Barack Obama's desk, it would be subject to sequestration that

would reverse most of its spending increases. The path of least

resistance is to pass what in Washington-speak is known as a

"continuing resolution," a measure that funds the government

at current levels with minimal adjustments.

"The appropriations bills between the two

Chambers are so far apart that aligning them would be difficult, if not

impossible,"

said Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, top Republican on the

Appropriations Committee. "The end game will probably be a continuing

resolution."

The budget year ends on Sept. 30. A stopgap

spending bill would be required to prevent a partial shutdown of the

government

as negotiations drag on through the fall. Such bills are typically

routine, but this year House and Senate leaders are at

odds over whether to finance these temporary government operations

at a level consistent with the 2014 post-sequester level

of $967 billion.

"Democrats haven't given up on reversing the sequester and setting sound fiscal policy through the regular order of the budget

process," said top Senate Democrat Harry Reid, D-Nev. "And we know Democrats and Republicans will never find common ground

if we never start negotiating."

Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, reiterated that Republicans will demand spending cuts as a condition of increasing

the government's borrowing cap this fall and avert a fiscal crisis.

"We need significant cuts in spending if

we're going to replace the sequester and extend the debt limit," Boehner

told reporters.

Obama vows that he won't allow the so-called debt limit to be held hostage to GOP demands for spending cuts like he did two

years ago.

Meanwhile, a Republican-controlled House

panel responsible for funding the Environmental Protection Agency, clean

water projects

and the national parks approved a measure with slashing cuts that

prompted bitter protests from Democrats. The top Democrat

on the panel, Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia, walked out of the

session after excoriating the GOP measure as a "disgrace."

Moran cited sweeping cuts to grants for clean and safe drinking water projects, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and a cut to

the EPA of more than one-third. He also cited numerous anti-environment policy "riders."

Rep. Nita Lowey on New York, top Democrat on the full Appropriations Committee, said the measure contains an "industry wish

list of giveaways," including provision that would allow mining companies to evade potential rules that would require they

have enough money to clean up anything they leak into the ground and water.

At the same time, the full House began debate on an almost $600 billion measure funding the Pentagon and military operations

in Afghanistan.