- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 17, 2009

The House voted Wednesday to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and ensure the jobless don’t lose their benefits, spearheading a flurry of legislative activity as lawmakers hurried to finish their work for the year.

On the last day of what has been a tumultuous year, the House was also taking action to prevent the government from defaulting on its mushrooming debt and voting on a $174 billion package to stimulate job growth through infrastructure projects, help for teachers and first responders and extended safety nets for the unemployed.

The Senate, meanwhile, could be looking at another week of work as Democrats struggle to pass the health care overhaul bill and act on other must-do measures. It is expected to vote Friday or Saturday on the defense bill passed by the House.

The $636 billion Pentagon bill includes $128 billion to pay for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but leaves for later negotiations the question of how to pay for the 30,000 additional troops recently ordered to Afghanistan by President Obama.

Financing Mr. Obama’s Afghanistan surge could prove a major political headache for divided congressional Democrats next year.

The measure passed 395-34 with almost no debate. Defense funding measures generally get wide bipartisan support, although this year Republicans objected to using the legislation as the vehicle to which other less popular measures were attached.

Those included two-month extensions on several acts that are to expire at the end of the year. There is continued unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, a 65 percent health insurance subsidy for the unemployed, highway and transit funding, three provisions of the anti-terror USA Patriot Act and an act that shields doctors from a 21 percent cut in Medicare payments.

There was also grumbling about the usual inclusion of special projects requested by individual lawmakers. Taxpayers for Common Sense estimated that the bill contains 1,720 such projects worth $4.2 billion. One example was $960,000 for a sprinkler system for the Historic Fort Hamilton Community Club in New York City.

The minority party also sought to score political points on the need to raise the $12.1 trillion debt ceiling so the Treasury Department can continue borrowing, adding to the national debt.

Democrats had wanted to raise the ceiling to nearly $14 trillion so that Congress would not have to address the issue until after next year’s election, but ran into opposition from deficit hawks in their own party.

In the end, Democrats settled for a $290 billion increase that will keep the government solvent for six more weeks. It passed 218-214 without a single Republican vote in support.

The $174 billion jobs package includes $75 billion for highway and transit projects, school renovation and keeping teachers and firefighters on the job, and another $78 billion to extend unemployment insurance and health care subsidies. About $75 billion of the package comes from diverting money from the $700 billion Wall Street bailout fund.

The defense bill contains no money for new F-22 fighters, ceding to demands by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates that Congress end funding for a plane that had its origins in the Cold War but is poorly suited for fighting insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also shuts down the much-criticized new presidential helicopter program.

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