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VOL. 126 | NO. 245 | Friday, December 16, 2011

Agreement Near on $1 Trillion Spending Bill

ANDREW TAYLOR | Associated Press

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WASHINGTON (AP) – Bipartisan agreement is near on a massive $1 trillion-plus year-end spending package and should be reached in time avert a possible government shutdown this weekend, lawmakers said Thursday.

House Republicans were displaying renewed flexibility on a provision restricting travel to Cuba, but Democrats conceded defeat on a GOP demand to ban the District of Columbia's government from funding abortions.

The optimism came hours after Republicans said they planned to push the 1,200-plus-page legislation through the House with only GOP votes, which seemed like a bluff considering tea party opposition to the measure. Overnight, Republicans unveiled details of the bill, which curbs agency budgets but drops most policy provisions sought by GOP conservatives.

Democrats had been holding up the huge bill, seeking leverage in talks on extending payroll tax cuts and unemployment insurance, two pillars of President Barack Obama's jobs agenda.

But Thursday morning, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he had talked to top Senate Democrats who helped write the spending bill and that remaining issues "should be resolvable." He and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., expressed optimism that disputes over that bill and a separate measure extending a payroll tax cut were near an end. Release of a bipartisan version seemed hours away.

The spending bill contains language to roll back Obama's loosening of restrictions on the rights of Cubans to send money to relatives on the island or travel to the island to visit them. Earlier this year, the White House promised a veto over the restrictions on travel and gifts, which are supported by Republican Cuban-American lawmakers, a powerful political force in the swing state of Florida.

Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., said that Republicans were negotiating over the Cuba provision but were unwilling to drop it entirely. He said Democratic leaders had given up opposing a provision banning the District of Columbia government from funding abortions for poor women.

Release of the legislation came just a couple of hours after the White House issued a statement saying that Obama "continues to have significant concerns about a number of provisions" in the legislation.

White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer called for another stopgap funding bill to buy time for talks on both the spending and the payroll tax measures. Funding runs out Friday at midnight.

The underlying bill has bipartisan backing but could encounter turbulence with conservative tea party lawmakers seeking far more significant cuts to government agencies. The measure pays for day-to-day operating budgets of 10 Cabinet departments and programs ranging from border security to flood control to combating AIDS and famine in Africa.

Days after saying that the measure was wrapped up, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., acknowledged that talks had been reopened. It was unclear whether there would be additional changes beyond the Cuba provision.

The legislation was posted on the Internet Wednesday night to meet House transparency rules, though accompanying documents providing details may not be available until tonight, just a few hours before Friday's scheduled vote.

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

The bill chips away at the Pentagon budget, foreign aid and environmental spending but boosts funding for veterans programs. The Securities and Exchange Commission, responsible for enforcing new regulations under last year's financial overhaul, won a 10 percent budget increase, even as the tax-collecting IRS absorbs more than a 3 percent cut to its budget.

Popular education initiatives for special-needs children and disadvantaged schools were basically frozen and Obama's cherished "Race to the Top" initiative, which provides grants to better-performing schools, would absorb more than a 20 percent cut.

Environmentalists scored clear wins in stopping virtually every significant GOP initiative to roll back Environmental Protection Agency rules. Most importantly, industry forces seeking to block new greenhouse gas and clean air rules, as well as a new clean water regulation opposed by mountaintop removal mining interests, were denied. But Republicans succeeded in blocking new energy efficiency standards for light bulbs and won delays to a new Labor Department rule requiring a reduction of coal dust responsible for black lung disease.

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, though creative accounting such as mixing war funds with the core Defense Department budget is allowing billions of dollars more into Pentagon coffers.

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.

And with tensions plain in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, counterinsurgency aid for Pakistan would be cut to $850 million from Obama's $1.1 billion request. All told, $11.2 billion in emergency foreign aid funding would be provided for counterterrorism, humanitarian aid and training of Iraqi security forces, among other anti-terror activities.

The measure generally consists of relatively small adjustments to thousands of individual programs. Agencies like the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement will get a boost within the Homeland Security Department, while GOP defense hawks won additional funding to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. The troubled, over-budget, next-generation F-35 fighter plane program would be largely protected.

Social conservatives won a ban on government-funded abortions in Washington, D.C., and restored a longstanding ban on funding for needle exchange programs used to prevent the spread of HIV. But efforts to take away federal funding for Planned Parenthood failed, as expected.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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