- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 13, 2011

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is pushing Senate Democrats to use a critical year-end spending bill as political leverage to gain Republican backing for his calls to extend payroll tax cuts and unemployment benefits due to expire at the end of the year.

An administration official said the president called Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., last weekend and urged him not to let Congress pass the massive $1 trillion spending package and go on vacation until an agreement is reached on the tax cuts and the unemployment benefits. The White House is concerned that if the spending bill were to pass, Republican lawmakers could leave Washington without addressing the president’s other legislative priorities.

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal administration strategy.

The spending bill had been gaining bipartisan support in a combative Congress. But Reid’s White House-backed maneuvering could jeopardize efforts to approve new spending before the current government funding runs out this weekend. That means lawmakers could be faced with the prospect of passing a stopgap measure to keep the federal government operating.

Lawmakers had reached a tentative agreement Monday on the $1 trillion spending bill, which cuts agency budgets but drops many policy provisions sought by GOP conservatives. It chips away at the Pentagon budget, foreign aid and environmental spending but boosts funding for veterans programs and modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The measure generally pleases environmentalists, who succeeded in stopping industry forces from blocking new clean air rules and a new clean water regulation opposed by mountaintop removal mining interests. House Republicans appeared likely to win concessions that would roll back administration efforts to ease restrictions on Cuban immigrants on traveling to the island and sending cash back to family members there.

On spending, the measure implements this summer’s hard-fought budget pact between the president and Republican leaders. That deal essentially freezes agency budgets, on average, at levels for the recently completed budget year that were approved back in April.

Drafted behind closed doors, the proposed bill would provide $115 billion for overseas security operations in Afghanistan and Iraq but give the Pentagon just a 1 percent boost in annual spending not directly related to the wars. The Environmental Protection Agency’s budget would be cut by 3.5 percent. Foreign aid spending would drop and House lawmakers would absorb a 6 percent cut to their office budgets.

The bill also covers money for combating AIDS and famine in Africa, patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border, operating national parks and boosting veterans’ health care.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said bargainers had struck an agreement but would not formally unveil it until Tuesday. Other lawmakers said some issues remain to be finalized.

A House vote is expected Thursday and the Senate is likely to follow in time to meet a midnight Friday deadline before a stopgap funding measure expires.

Negotiations on the omnibus had largely been smooth and businesslike, a sharp contrast with the ongoing partisan brawl over Obama’s demand that Congress extend jobless benefits and a cut in the Social Security payroll tax. The House is slated to vote on a GOP-friendly version of the payroll tax cut Tuesday; negotiations with the Democratic-controlled Senate on a compromise measure have yet to begin.

The delay into Tuesday on the spending measure stemmed in large part from displeasure on the part of Senate Democratic leaders, upset about the hard line taken by Republicans on the payroll tax cut measure. Democrats are seeking to ensure both the spending measure and the payroll tax bill pass before Congress adjourns for the year.

“They’re connected politically. We need to do it all before we go home,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

Rogers was pushing until the end to block clean water rules opposed by mining companies that blast the tops off mountains, to no avail. Top Appropriations Committee Democrat Norm Dicks of Washington, when asked if the mountaintop mining rider was still a concern, said, “It would be if it were in” the final legislation.

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