WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Democratic-controlled U.S. Congress on Tuesday approved a $410 billion bill to fund most of the government through September 30, sending it to President Barack Obama despite Republican objections to the price tag.
After a contentious fight, the Senate approved the bill which funds the departments of transportation and agriculture, among others. It also begins to roll back strict limits on travel and trade with Cuba — a move Obama supports.
“It takes care of these government agencies that have been, over the Bush years, so underfunded,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, referring to President George W. Bush’s administration.
Many Republicans fought against the bill because it raised government spending by 8 percent above fiscal 2008 levels. They said it added more money to programs already funded by the $787 billion economic stimulus package approved last month.
The debate, at times full of bitter 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, which Congress will turn to in the coming weeks.
Senators from both parties objected to billions of dollars for lawmakers’ pet projects, but 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 Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who called the legislation a “missed opportunity” to restrain spending amid a deep recession.
Republicans were able to slow the legislation down and get more amendments considered, but none were adopted. Amendments rejected included ending automatic pay raises for lawmakers and scrapping language that Republicans said would end a Washington, D.C. school voucher program.
While most of the votes throughout the debate were along party lines, eight Republicans crossed the aisle to vote to end the weeklong debate on the legislation while three Democrats opposed it. The Senate approved the measure by a voice vote.
The extra debate gave the Obama administration time to address concerns by two senators about the Cuba provisions. Two Democrats, Senators Bill Nelson of Florida and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, were against the bill until the administration offered their views about the provisions.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner wrote to the senators saying that the provisions about doing business with Cuba would not amount to a major reversal of the decades-old U.S. policy of isolating the communist-run island.
The legislation also provides funding for scores of government agencies, boosting money for more FBI agents and the 2010 U.S. population count while trimming funds for flood protection construction projects and Bush’s initiative of providing grants to developing nations.
The measure adds about $37 million over 2008 to the budget of the Securities and Exchange Commission which has come under heavy criticism for failing to detect financial fraud alleged against Bernard Madoff and Texas billionaire Allen Stanford.
It also adds funds for the Food and Drug Administration for food safety initiatives in the wake of an outbreak of salmonella from peanut products.
Senators rejected amendments aimed at shaping U.S. foreign policy, trying to limit government contracts with companies that do business in Iran’s energy sector and requiring strict oversight of money for the Palestinian Authority to ensure that the militant group Hamas does not get any.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, Editing by Chris Wilson