March 10, 2009 / 8:46 PM / 11 years ago

US Senate nears passage of $410 bln spending bill

* Obama administration reassures on Cuba policy

* Republicans opposed hiking government spending levels

* Pet projects and "earmarks" stay in

By Jeremy Pelofsky and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON, March 10 (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Tuesday moved closer to approving a $410 billion spending bill to fund most of the government after the Obama administration offered assurances about proposed changes to U.S. policy on Cuba.

The bill includes billions of dollars for government agencies like agriculture and transportation through Sept. 30, but also includes changes to Bush administration policies, such as easing limits on travel to and trade with Cuba.

"It takes care of these government agencies that have been, over the Bush years, so underfunded," said Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, referring to President George W. Bush’s administration.

The debate, at times full of partisan rancor over the U.S. embargo on Cuba and abortion, foreshadows even bigger fights over Obama’s $3.55 trillion 2010 budget and overhauling healthcare. Congress will turn to those issues in the coming weeks.

Many Republicans had fought the interim spending measure for 2009 because it raised government spending by 8 percent over the previous year’s levels. They said it added more money to programs already funded a the $787 billion economic stimulus package approved last month.

Senators from both parties objected to billions of dollars for lawmakers’ pet projects, but nonetheless rejected several attempts to freeze the spending at last year’s levels and strip out so-called earmarks.

"The bill costs far too much for a government that should be watching every dime," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who called the legislation a "missed opportunity" to restrain spending amid a deep recession.

CONCERN OVER CUBA PROVISIONS

Republicans were able to slow the legislation down and were able to get several amendments considered, but none has been adopted so far. Meanwhile, the White House was able to assuage concerns by a few senators about provisions related to Cuba.

Two Democrats, Senators Bill Nelson of Florida and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, were against the bill until the administration offered clarifications.

The problem stemmed from provisions to prohibit the Treasury Department from enforcing Bush administration rules requiring payment of cash in advance for agricultural sales to Cuba and language offering new licenses for travel to Cuba to sell certain goods.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner wrote to Menendez and Nelson, saying these provisions would not amount to a major reversal of the decades-old U.S. policy of isolating the communist-run island.

The cash-in-advance requirement for agricultural sales to Cuba would still be in law, Geithner said, while only a "narrow class" of businesses would be eligible to travel to Cuba to market and sell agricultural and medical goods.

The legislation would also allow immediate family members to travel once a year to Cuba instead of once every three years. Nelson and Menendez did not object to that change.

The House of Representatives passed the $410 billion bill last week and if the Senate approves it, the legislation would be sent to Obama for his expected signature. (Editing by Chris Wilson)




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