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Defense bill clears key Senate hurdle

The $630-billion measure also provides money for two additional months of expanded unemployment benefits.

December 19, 2009|By Alexander C. Hart

Reporting from Washington — The Senate is poised to vote today on a $630-billion defense appropriations bill that also extends several expiring social programs.

The bill, almost three months overdue, will provide $128 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and includes a 3.4% pay raise for soldiers. But it does not include money for President Obama's proposal to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, because the White House has not yet requested that funding.

On the domestic side, the bill provides funding for two more months of expanded unemployment benefits for millions of people.

Democrats had to fend off a Republican filibuster to make a vote today possible. The Republicans' main grievance, however, lay with healthcare legislation, not the defense bill.

"The bill that is before us is not what is driving the timing of this vote," Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) said shortly before the vote early Friday to prevent the filibuster. "I think that what is driving it is healthcare, and I believe that . . . most of us are going to support the Department of Defense appropriations bill when the time is right." She called for more time to consider healthcare legislation, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is trying to pass by Christmas.

The defense bill represents a partial success for Obama and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who have lobbied to halt several programs they consider obsolete or wasteful. Those included the development of a new presidential helicopter and the production of the F-22 fighter jet, which they said was ill-suited to counter-insurgency efforts. But the bill still contains $2.5 billion to purchase 10 C-17 cargo jets that the administration did not request.

The bill also contains $13.3 billion in nondefense spending, according to Senate staffers. Most of that will fund two additional months of expanded benefits for people unemployed more than 26 weeks. Otherwise, funding for millions of people would run out at the end of this month.

The extension is important, experts said, because the unemployment rate remains at 10%, even after a recent decline.

"It's not that people are putting off getting a job," said Economic Policy Institute Vice President Ross Eisenbrey. "They can't find a job."

He said that according to the institute's calculations, there were 6.3 unemployed workers for every job available.

The bill also gives two-month extensions to the Patriot Act and subsidies for COBRA , which helps workers who lose their jobs keep their health insurance. It also staves off a 21% payment cut for doctors who treat Medicare patients.

An identical version of the bill sailed through the House on Wednesday on a 395-34 vote. If the Senate passes it today, it will head to Obama for his signature.

After that happens, the appropriations process for fiscal year 2010, which began Oct. 1, will be complete. Because the defense bill and other agency appropriations were several months overdue, much of the government has been operating on continuing resolutions that held funding at 2009 levels.

alex.hart@latimes.com

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