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Senate heads off filibuster on defense bill

- The Washington Times - Friday, December 18, 2009

The Senate early Friday headed off a Republican filibuster on the final spending bill of the year, clearing the way both for the bill's passage and for the final end-game on a health care bill.

Republicans had tried to drag out the debate on the $636.3 billion 2010 defense spending bill as a way of delaying a return to the health care debate, which Democrats are trying to finish by Christmas.

But on a 63-33 vote that began at 1 a.m., the Senate mustered more than the 60 votes needed to end the filibuster and move to a final vote, scheduled for Saturday morning, on passage of the defense bill. Several Republicans joined Democrats in voting to end the filibuster.

The late hour brought out the most pointed accusations by both sides.

"Rarely have I seen such brazen irresponsibility," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, who said Republicans are endangering U.S. troops and "want to turn their backs on Americans suffering and dying" over a lack of health care.

But Republicans said Democrats, who control all the levers of power in Congress and the White House, have badly mismanaged the schedule this year and left too many issues piled up at the end.

That left Mr. Reid to have to try to push through an extension of the U.S. borrowing level, try to pass health care and long-overdue spending bills, and try to take care of a host of end-of-year deadlines on everything from the Patriot Act to the estate tax to COBRA health insurance premiums.

"Don't blame Republicans for the fact that this bill comes to us a week before Christmas and therefore we have to act on it at this point in time," said Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican.

Republicans said nearly all of them will vote for the defense bill in the end, and questioned Democrats' hurry since the bill is already more than two and a half months overdue. The fiscal year began Oct. 1.

The measure funds the basic operations of the Defense Department, including about $125 billion for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The bill also includes short-term economic relief: an extension of unemployment benefits, food stamps and federal subsidies to help recently unemployed individuals afford COBRA health premiums. And the measure extends expiring provisions of the Patriot Act for several months, giving Congress breathing room to try to reach a final agreement on a permanent extension.

Earlier Thursday Democrats had been afraid they might not overcome the filibuster, since at least one member of their caucus was prepared to vote to block the bill.

But Sen. Russell Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, said Thursday evening while he opposes the defense spending bill, he would not help Republicans "delay passage of the defense bill in order to block the Senate from considering health care reform."

Under the expected schedule, the Senate will return to health care on Saturday and could pass the health care bill on Christmas Eve -- if Mr. Reid can find 60 votes for it. So far, the final few votes have proved elusive.

If it does pass, the Senate version would still have to be squared with the House's version.

The schedule for the rest of the year will be grueling, with several early-morning votes projected. Those will tax some of the Senate's more senior members, such as ailing Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat. When Mr. Byrd was wheeled in his wheelchair onto the Senate floor for Friday morning's vote his colleagues broke out in applause for him.

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