Senate passes defense spending bill

By Paul Kane and Ben Pershing
Washington Post staff writers
Sunday, December 20, 2009

In a rare early Saturday morning vote, the Senate passed a massive Pentagon spending bill that includes nearly $130 billion for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a measure Republicans had tried to block as a means of delaying action on President Obama's health-care overhaul.

On an 88-10 vote, the Senate sent the defense appropriations bill to the White House for Obama's signature, clearing the last spending measure for the federal government.

The legislation includes normal funding for the wars but does not include what likely will be $30 billion to $40 billion in additional money for the 30,000 more troops Obama plans to send into Afghanistan next year, funds that Congress will not consider until next spring.

The Republican effort to filibuster the bill was an unusual move for a party that staunchly backed the Pentagon's handling of the wars this decade. Early Saturday morning, 57 Democrats, two independents who caucus with Democrats and four Republicans voted to beat back the GOP effort at blocking the bill through a parliamentary maneuver.

Once those efforts were defeated and the return to the health-care debate was a foregone conclusion, 30 Republicans supported the final vote for military funding and nine opposed it. One Democrat, Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), voted against the bill, in line with his antiwar beliefs, but only after giving Democrats a critical vote in an early Friday morning GOP filibuster attempt.

A blizzard raged outside, and Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the 92-year-old Democrat from West Virginia, received an ovation from his colleagues when he appeared on the floor to cast his vote, wearing a dark blue suit and red, white and blue tie.

The defense spending bill includes $626 billion for critical Pentagon functions and an additional $10 billion for employee pension funds.

Almost as importantly, it includes a host of add-ons, many of them two-month extensions that will keep various current laws intact until late February, when Congress will have to undergo another flurry of deal-making.

The package includes non-defense-related safety-net measures designed to help those struggling through economic hardship, including extensions in unemployment benefits, COBRA health insurance for jobless workers and food stamps, as well as increased assistance to states to help cover Medicaid costs.

The USA Patriot Act gets a two-month extension, as do laws authorizing highway funding, flood insurance and federal loans for small businesses. Televisions won't go dark on New Year's Day, as a law that ensures that satellite TV customers receive local broadcast channels will be extended through Feb. 28.

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