WASHINGTON — The Senate headed for a Saturday morning vote on a package that funds the Pentagon and keeps other key programs, including benefits for the unemployed and highway spending, from expiring. It's the third straight weekend on the job as the Senate struggles to wrap up its work for the year.
The defense bill cleared a crucial hurdle early Friday with a vote to end a Republican effort to prolong debate. Still remaining on the agenda are health care and legislation to raise the federal debt limit so the Treasury can continue to borrow.
Anchored by a $626 billion Pentagon funding bill, the measure also carries short-term extensions of unemployment benefits, highway and transit funding, key pieces of the anti-terror Patriot Act and a measure to save doctors from shouldering a 21 percent cut in Medicare payments.
The timing of the 63-33 post-midnight tally – which blocked GOP stalling tactics and forced a final vote to clear the bill for Obama no later than Saturday – was governed more by the brawl over health care than significant opposition to the defense measure or its additional baggage.
For a time, Republicans are using every avenue available to them to try to delay or kill the health care legislation, including stretching out debate on the defense measure. The bill passed the House Wednesday by an overwhelming 395-34 vote.
A key Republican, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, was expected to vote to advance the measure but succumbed to pressure from GOP leaders to try to sustain the filibuster. That forced Democrats to get all 60 of their members, including anti-war Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., to defeat the filibuster and try to keep the Senate on track to pass the health care bill by Christmas.
"I am not going to be part of a partisan and cynical effort to delay passage of the defense bill in order to block the Senate from considering health care reform," Feingold said.
After Feingold fell in line and the vote was assured, three Republicans joined the Democrats to end debate – Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine.
The underlying defense measure provides $626 billion to the Defense Department for the budget year that began almost three months ago, a 4 percent increase for core Pentagon operations.
It includes $128 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The president has yet to request funds for his recently announced troop increase in Afghanistan, and there is no money in the bill for that.
On Friday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton issued a joint statement urging immediate passage. "Passage today will provide important support for our foreign policy and national security priorities and ensure continuity of funding for our troops in combat and for all of the Department of Defense," they said.
A stopgap funding measure expires at midnight on Friday, but White House budget director Peter Orszag has advised Senate leaders that no funding lapse would occur if Congress delivers the bill to Obama on Saturday.
The package contains about $465 million to develop a much-criticized alternative engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Air Force's multimission fighter of the future. The administration says the alternative engine is unnecessary and issued a vague veto threat over it, but has since backpedaled.
The bill contains no funds for new F-22 fighters. Gates staked his reputation on killing the program, which has its origins in the Cold War era but is poorly suited for anti-insurgent battles in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The measure also trims personnel and maintenance accounts from previous versions of the measure to pump up weapons procurement for Afghanistan and Iraq by almost $2 billion.
The defense measure would trim $900 million from the Pentagon's $7.5 billion budget to train Afghan security forces. It would use the money to buy about 1,400 additional mine-resistance vehicles suited for rugged conditions in Afghanistan. Lawmakers say the training program can't absorb that much money in the coming year, so they used it for other purposes.