US bill approved without usual drama

STEVEN R. HURST
Last updated 09:00 17/01/2014

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Party leaders pushed a massive US$1.1 trillion ($1.3t) spending bill for this year through the House on Wednesday, moving beyond three years of partisan fighting over the size and role of government.

With none of the conflict of recent budget battles, lawmakers in the Republican-controlled House approved the measure 359-67. The Democratic-led Senate plans to vote final approval later this week.

Lawmakers from both parties, many of them facing re-election this November, had little taste for a standoff that might have triggered a repeat of the government shutdown in October- which voters hated.

The lack of drama flowed from the bipartisan agreement enacted in December that laid out spending totals for the next two years.

The 1,582-page bill approved on Wednesday filled in the details. It provides money for virtually every federal agency, spending money on everything from airports to war. It eases many - but not all - of the automatic spending cuts that took effect last year.

With polls showing voter approval of Congress at or near record lows, lawmakers wanted to show they were able to perform their most basic function - responsibly funding the government.

"The average American looking at this, it looks pretty dysfunctional for the last couple of years," said Republican Tom Cole.

"We need to rack up some achievements here - not just for Republicans but for incumbents in general and for the institution."

The bill preserves the tighter government spending demanded by Republicans. Yet the bipartisan measure also preserves President Barack Obama's health care overhaul and stricter regulation of financial markets.

The bill also avoids an additional US$20 billion ($24b) in automatic cuts to the defence Department - on top of US$34b imposed last year - and cuts to many domestic programs. A 2011 law forced deep cuts last year after Obama and Congress failed to negotiate budget savings.

With its sheer size and detail, the measure has plenty for liberals and conservatives to dislike.

It continues restrictions on federal financing of most abortions, but it lacks Republican-sought curbs on the Environmental Protection Agency's power to regulate utilities' greenhouse gas emissions.

Some Democrats said they would support it but only reluctantly, complaining that despite some increases, spending for education, health and other programs would still be too low.

"With this bill, we are waste deep in manure instead of neck deep in manure. Hooray, I guess," said Rep. Jim McGovern, a Democrat.

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The primary achievement is that there is an agreement at all. After last year's collapse of the budget process, the government shutdown and another brush with a disastrous default on US debt, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Republican, and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, a Democrat, made a deal.

The agreement avoids a repeat of the 5 per cent cut applied to domestic agencies last year and prevents the Pentagon from absorbing the US$20b in new cuts.

Challenges remain. Congress needs to raise the government's borrowing cap by the end of February or early March, and it's unclear how big a battle that will be.

- AP

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