Congress OKs bill to boost SEC, fund agencies

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A $447 billion bill that would boost financial oversight and high-speed rail, encourage needle exchanges for drug addicts, and advance other Democratic priorities won final U.S. congressional approval on Sunday.

The U.S. Capitol building is seen before the start of President Barack Obama's primetime address to a joint session of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 24, 2009. REUTERS/Jim Young

On a 57-35 vote, the Senate passed the measure, previously approved by the House of Representatives. It would allow the Securities and Exchange Commission to hire 420 workers to oversee investments and the financial markets.

The legislation funds dozens of federal agencies, including the departments of Justice and State, for the rest of the 2010 fiscal year, which ends next September 30. President Barack Obama must sign it into law by Friday or extend a temporary measure to keep the government running.

The measure would boost lending programs for small businesses, which the administration has identified as a way to bring down the nation’s 10 percent unemployment rate.

Car dealerships cut loose by General Motors Co and Chrysler would be given a way to try to maintain their affiliations with those troubled automakers.

The bill also reverses restrictions on some social programs that were put in place by former President George W. Bush and his Republican allies.

Needle-exchange programs for drug addicts -- intended to ensure that diseases such as AIDS are not spread by infected needles shared by injection drug users -- would have an easier time getting federal funding. Abstinence-only sex-education programs for school children would get less money.

The measure would reverse a ban on Washington’s ability to use local funds to pay for abortions. The capital city, unlike the 50 U.S. states, is subject to congressional control.

Critics blasted the 2,444-page measure as an irresponsible 14 percent spending increase for domestic programs at a time of record government deficits.

The bill includes $3.9 billion in so-called earmarks to fund 5,224 pet projects in various lawmakers’ home districts, according to the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

The pet projects were denounced just before the vote by Republican Senator John McCain, who noted one of them included money for research at the University of Nebraska into surgical operations in outer space.

“Let’s stand up against this for once,” he told the Senate. “It’s crazy stuff.”

The price tag does not include hundreds of billions of dollars in entitlement programs providing health insurance and retirement benefits to millions of Americans that Congress does not control directly.

The Medicare health insurance program for the elderly and disabled, for example, is expected to cost $514 billion this fiscal year and the Social Security retirement program will cost $698 billion, the Congressional Budget Office said.

The bill funds operations for the fiscal year that began October 1, more than two months ago. Congress has not passed its spending bills on time since 1994.

Lawmakers next week are expected to take up the largest single spending bill -- a $630 billion-plus measure that funds the Pentagon, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.