- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Senate on Saturday sent the final spending bill of the year, the $636.3 billion defense measure, to President Obama to sign into law, setting the stage for a stretch run to try to pass health care reform by Christmas.

Senators braved biting winds and driving snow to vote, 88-10, to pass the bill. But that overwhelming tally belied the venomous fight that has erupted as Republicans use a range of tactics to delay a return to the health care agenda.

The defense bill, which covers fiscal 2010, includes $128 billion to fund the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Democrats also tacked on extra funds for food stamps, an extension of the USA Patriot Act and continued subsidies to make it easier for the recently unemployed to afford health insurance under COBRA provisions.

“This is a good strong message we’ve sent to our men and women in uniform,” Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, told his colleagues after the final vote. “It was a little bit of a struggle to get here, but we got here.”

The bill does pose several challenges to Mr. Obama.

Lawmakers included $465 million to fund a backup engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The White House this summer said the program could slow production of the F-35 and warned that the president could veto the bill.

The bill also includes $2.5 billion for C-17 transport airplanes that the administration didn’t request, includes more money for the presidential helicopter than Mr. Obama requested, and continues pork-barrel spending. Lawmakers listed more than 1,700 earmarked projects at a total cost of $4.2 billion.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, complained about the pork-barrel projects.

“Here we have a bill to defend the nation - to defend the nation - and [it includes] $18.9 million for a center at the University of Massachusetts ‘dedicated to educating the general public, students, teachers, new senators, and Senate staff about the role and importance of the Senate,’ ” Mr. McCain said.

Republicans also complained about the procedures used to push through the bill, but most supported the measure. Nine of the votes against the bill came from Republicans, including Mr. McCain. They were joined by Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat.

Last weekend, the Senate passed a package of six other appropriations bills - all of them long overdue. The fiscal year began Oct. 1, and much of the government has been running on stopgap funding for the past 2 1/2 months.

That stopgap funding technically expired Friday night, and the Senate passed another stopgap bill Saturday to give the massive defense bill time to be processed.

Republicans forced Democrats to spend three days of floor time debating the spending bill as a way of delaying the health care bill. Democrats accused Republicans of using funding for the troops to try to obstruct Senate business.

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