Senate Set for Rare Saturday Session in Struggle to Pass $1.1 Trillion in Spending – New York Times

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, right center, forced a delay on a vote in the Senate on Friday night.
December 13, 2014

WASHINGTON — The Senate prepared for a rare Saturday session as it struggled to pass a $1.1 trillion spending package notable for its expansive spending on military and disease fighting abroad, as well as its scaling back of financial and environmental regulations at home.

Partisan maneuvering on Friday disrupted what both Democratic and Republican leaders had expected to be a relatively smooth path toward final passage, a late-night twist that is emblematic of the dysfunction plaguing the 113th Congress.

Though the spending deal is still almost sure to pass, the Senate did not reach an agreement late Friday. Lawmakers are scheduled to being taking votes on nominations Saturday and work through the weekend to address unfinished business.

On his way out of the Capitol, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader, was asked where infighting would ultimately lead: “It will lead to passing the omnibus,” he said, referring to the spending package.

As a precaution, the House also passed another short-term funding measure on Friday that would give the Senate until Wednesday evening to push through the bill.

The bipartisan budget agreement approved by the House on Thursday would keep most of the government operating through the fiscal year, averting a shutdown of the government and providing Republicans with a fresh slate when they have control of both houses of Congress in January.

But a late-night maneuver by Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, which delayed a final vote on the spending deal and forced the Senate to meet on Saturday, offered a preview of the internal squabbles that Republican Senate leaders will have to manage next year.

The deal provides $64 billion for military operations in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and $5.4 billion to combat the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Other winners were big banks, who won a rollback of some portions of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulation law, and political parties, which may now accept huge donations from individual donors.

In a concession to Republicans, many of whom were outraged over President Obama’s unilateral decision to defer the deportation of as many as five million undocumented immigrants, the package funds the Department of Homeland Security — the primary agency responsible for carrying out the president’s order — only through February. At that point, Republicans will have the Senate majority, and believe they will be in a better position to challenge Mr. Obama’s policy.

Mr. Reid said that the legislation was “far from perfect,” but much better than the likely alternative — a three-month extension of federal spending at current levels.

The bill, Mr. Reid said, “gives the Affordable Care Act the secure financial footing that it deserves,” and provides money for military operations against the Islamic State and for public health efforts against the Ebola virus. He added that while he did not support the provisions of the bill that roll back Dodd-Frank restrictions on big banks, “legislation is the art of compromise.”

But the bill brought together unlikely allies, uniting progressive Democrats with Tea Party Republicans against a provision that would scale back part of the Dodd-Frank Act that limits the ability of big banks to trade certain risky financial instruments.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, in a show of her emerging strength as a leader among progressives, spoke defiantly against the financial regulation provision, but did not seem likely to summon enough colleagues to her cause to stop the bill. She drafted an amendment to eliminate the provision in the spending bill that deals with the Dodd-Frank law.

“Ever since the new financial regulations went into place,” Ms. Warren said, “Wall Street has been working behind the scenes to open another loophole so they could gamble with taxpayer money and get bailed out when their risky bets threaten to blow up our financial system. Congress should not put taxpayers on the hook for another bailout.”

Senator David Vitter, Republican of Louisiana, joined Ms. Warren, saying that Congress should not be “handing out Christmas presents to the megabanks and Wall Street.”

On immigration, Mr. Cruz kept his promise to delay the spending package to ensure a vote on an amendment to prevent the president from implementing his executive action. He said he was doing “everything humanly possible” to ensure “the opportunity to make clear each senator’s views on whether we will be complicit in funding President Obama’s illegal amnesty.”

The bill also reduces funds for the Environmental Protection Agency for the fifth straight year, trimming $60 million from 2014 levels; prohibits the agency from regulating the lead content of ammunition or fishing tackle; and exempts livestock producers from greenhouse gas regulations.

Even as Congress tried to negotiate the final timing of the spending bill on Friday, it passed a bill that sets policy for military spending, authorizing up to $577 billion in the current fiscal year.

By a vote of 89 to 11, the Senate approved the annual defense authorization bill, which the House passed last week, 300 to 119.

The bill authorizes nearly $64 billion for overseas military campaigns, including money to train and equip Syrian rebels fighting the Islamic State. It also allows a 1 percent pay increase for military personnel and establishes new procedures to improve the handling of sexual assault cases in the military.

Several conservatives, led by Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, objected to unrelated provisions of the bill that expand national parks, wilderness areas and other federal lands. “A bill that defines the needs of our nation’s defense is hardly the proper place to trample on private property rights,” Mr. Coburn said.

In addition to the spending bill, the Senate has other business before members can head home for the holidays. The Senate is expected to approve a House-passed bill retroactively ending dozens of tax breaks. The tax breaks — like the research and development tax credit for businesses and the deduction for state and local sales taxes for individuals — will expire all over again on Jan. 1 under the one-year plan approved by the House.

And on Saturday, the Senate will begin working its way through some remaining judicial and other nominations as well. It also hopes to pass a terrorism risk insurance package, which would raise the threshold of terrorism damage at which federal aid is available, to $200 million from $100 million, and is set to expire at the end of this year.

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