US House passes stopgap measure

2016-12-09 06:02
The US Capitol building at dusk in Washington. (Evan Vucci, AP)

The US Capitol building at dusk in Washington. (Evan Vucci, AP)

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Washington - A day ahead of a government shut-down deadline, the House easily passed a stopgap spending bill to keep federal agencies running through the end of April. The legislation's fate in the Senate remained uncertain due to strident opposition from coal-state Democrats.

The Republican-led House voted on Thursday to approve the spending bill, 326-96.

Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sherrod Brown of Ohio argued that a provision in the bill to temporarily extend health care benefits for about 16 500 retired union coal miners facing the loss of coverage on December 31 is insufficient. The measure does not protect pension benefits despite President Harry S Truman's 1946 guarantee to miners of lifetime health and retirement benefits.

Republicans insisted the deal was the best they could get, heightening the possibility the government could close at midnight Friday.

"They're not going to get what they want. They ought to actually be grateful for what they got," said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No 2 Republican.

The stand-off raised the possibility of a weekend Senate session.

"We're going to stick together on this, and this is really important to Democrats," Brown said. "And we hope that President-elect Trump, in his words about Buy America and his talk about workers, will help us convince Republicans."

Earlier Thursday, the Senate voted 92-7 for the annual defense policy bill, a week after the House overwhelmingly backed the measure, 375-34, giving Congress veto-proof majorities in both chambers. The bill now goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.

The defence bill rebuffs Obama's quest to shutter the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, while also denying his bid to reduce the size of the armed forces and granting the troops a pay raise larger than the one their commander in chief recommended.

The spending bill passed by the House would keep the government running through April 28 and provide with $10 billion in supplemental war funding and $4 billion more for disaster relief for Louisiana and other states.

Last major items

The hard-fought legislation also includes provisions to help Flint, Michigan, fix its lead-tainted water system and speed up next year's confirmation for retired General James Mattis as President-elect Donald Trump's defence secretary.

Also on deck in the House is separate legislation to authorise water projects that has sparked a major battle between environmentalists and agricultural interests over legislation to allow more of California's limited water resources to flow to Central Valley farmers hurt by the state's lengthy drought.

The two measures are the last major items on the House agenda before lawmakers leave until early January, capping a tumultuous, often bitter two-year session of Congress.

A conservative rebellion booted Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, from office last year. Democrats staged an overnight sit-in on the House floor protesting the GOP-led Congress' inaction on gun control. Senate Republicans refused to let Obama fill a Supreme Court vacancy after Justice Antonin Scalia died last February.

A divisive election last month was a capstone.

Tributes on Thursday to retiring senators offered a brief respite from rancor. The Senate's top Democrat, Harry Reid of Nevada, delivered a long farewell speech. Reid, who is retiring after three decades in the chamber, received testimonials and applause after an hour-plus speech.

Water deal

In the Senate, the path forward for the water bill is tricky as Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., is siding with environmentalists and is openly feuding with California Democratic colleague Dianne Feinstein, an architect of the California water deal. Boxer is vowing to filibuster the water projects measure over the drought provision.

Democrats groused about the provision to make it easier for the Senate to process Mattis' nomination next year. Congress needs to pass legislation to grant Mattis an exception from a law that requires a seven-year wait for former members of the military to serve in the civilian post. The provision would speed up action on the waiver, though Democrats could still filibuster it.

The underlying spending bill would buy several months for the new Congress and incoming Trump administration to wrap up more than $1 trillion worth of unfinished agency budget bills. Republicans promise an immediate infusion next year of additional money for the Pentagon.

House and Senate leaders also disagreed about whether lawmakers have enough time to approve the first major energy bill in nearly a decade.

A spokesperson for House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, said in a statement that House and Senate negotiators "were not able to come to agreement" on a variety of outstanding issues. But Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, disputed that, saying, "The reality is that the House is attempting to run us out of time in order to prevent this bill from moving forward."

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