House OKs stopgap to buoy government

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The House on Wednesday easily passed a $630 billion stopgap spending bill to continue funding the federal government into March that includes billions for the Pentagon and loans for the struggling U.S. auto industry.

The package is void of many Democratic spending measures party leaders had hoped to include in the bill, such as proposed increases in unemployment compensation benefits and an expansion of the food-stamp program. But Democrats say these and other spending measures instead will be placed in a second economic-stimulus package set to be introduced later.

The measure passed by a vote of 370-58 with support of 224 Democrats and 146 Republicans. Fifty-one Republicans and seven Democrats voted against the bill, which now goes to the Senate.

Congress must pass the temporary spending bill by Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, because it has failed to approve any of the 12 annual appropriation bills needed to keep federal agencies operating. The measure would fund the government through March 6.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the measure also “will make investments in some key shared priorities to move our country forward, while ensuring that critical government services upon which the American people rely continue without interruption.”

The measure includes $488 billion for the Pentagon, $40 billion for the Homeland Security Department and $73 billion for veterans’ programs and military base construction projects.

The Defense Department money is in addition to $70 billion that Congress approved earlier this year for U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Another key provision is $25 billion in low-interest loan guarantees for General Motors Corp., the Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC - a huge victory for Detroit’s struggling Big Three automakers.

“I’m not a fan of the American auto industry, and I’m not a fan of this provision, but Congress authorized it, and we’re providing the funding for it,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat.

The bill also includes $23 billion in aid for victims of hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters, $4.1 billion more than last year’s budget for wounded military veterans, an additional $2.5 billion to help struggling families pay home energy bills, and more than $1 billion in food subsides for low-income families and seniors.

Conspicuously absent is an offshore oil-drilling moratorium that is set to expire Oct. 1. Democrats initially had pushed for a one-year extension of the ban, but caved in to Republican and White House demands the ban be lifted.

Democrats say they will work to reinstate the ban when a new White House administration takes office next year.

Many Republicans criticized Democrats for allowing thousands of “earmarks” - pet spending projects - to be inserted into the more than 350-page bill.

Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan federal budget-watchdog group, said it has found more than 2,600 earmarks totaling at least $16 billion, including a $1.5 million request by Mrs. Pelosi for San Francisco’s Presidio Heritage Center, and $2 million for a University of Alaska at Fairbanks project investigating the use of hibernation to prevent and treat battlefield trauma.

Republicans complained that Democrats drafted the bill without their input, wouldn’t allow amendments and only filed the bill late Tuesday.

“The appropriations process this year has been the most dysfunctional process that I’ve seen in my 30 years in Congress,” said Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee. “While the [emergency spending bill] is now inevitable, it would not have been necessary had the Democrat majority actually focused on completing our work on appropriations bills.”

But Democrats said Republicans and the Bush administration - not Democrats - were to blame for the budget impasse this year because they “refused to compromise, refused to negotiate, refused to rethink their budget requests.”

“We are debating a [bill] today because we did not complete the appropriations process, [but] believe me, it was not for lack of effort,” said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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