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US Congress gives final approval to $410 billion spending package

US Congress gives final approval to $410 billion spending package
The U.S. Congress gave final approval to a $410 billion spending bill that includes an overall 8 percent budget increase for some federal agencies and thousands of congressional pet projects. The Senate approved the so-called omnibus measure on a voice vote, sending it to President Barack Obama for his signature. Moments earlier, the bill cleared a procedural vote 62 to 35. The House approved the plan Feb. 25. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said before passage that he was “very” surprised at how long it took lawmakers to reach agreement on the legislation. He said the bill will provide needed funding increases for federal agencies that saw too many lean budgets during former President George W. Bush’s administration. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said Congress shouldn’t be providing budget increases that are twice the rate of inflation. “This bill costs far too much for a government that should be watching every dime,” he said. “If the president is looking for a first bill to veto, this is it.” The omnibus measure combines nine annual appropriations bills left over from last year that are needed to fund federal agencies unrelated to defense through this September, when the government’s fiscal year ends. Those agencies are currently funded by stopgap legislation that expires tomorrow; the budgets for defense programs were set last year. The bill provides an overall budget increase of 8 percent for domestic programs, with some regulatory agencies receiving double-digit increases. The Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission will get 31 percent funding increases, while the Food and Drug Administration’s budget will grow by 19 percent. The legislation also includes almost $8 billion sought by lawmakers for about 8,500 pet projects, according to a tally by the Washington-based Taxpayers for Common Sense. Among the spending on these so-called earmarks: $1.8 million for swine odor and manure management research in Iowa, $2 million to promote astronomy in Hawaii and $381,000 for music programs at New York City’s Lincoln Center. The earmarks put the Obama administration on the defensive. White House officials were forced to repeatedly explain why they would accept legislation including thousands of the projects after touting its determination to keep them out of the $787 billion economic stimulus package enacted last month. White House Budget Director Peter Orszag said in an interview March 8 on CNN that the bill is “uglier than we’d like” and that the administration “absolutely” would have written it differently. He said the administration was eager to put the legislation behind it. Reid tried to wrap up work on the omnibus last week before conceding he didn’t have the votes to overcome a key procedural hurdle without help from Republicans, who withheld their support until they were allowed to offer more amendments. Democrats defeated all of the additional proposals, including one on Tuesday that would have deleted a phase-out of a pilot program in Washington, D.C., that allows 1,700 poor children to attend private schools at public expense. Republicans, who created the program in 2003, portrayed Democrats as hypocrites for ending the initiative when many lawmakers send their own children to private schools. Under the bill, the budget for the House will increase by 10 percent while funding for Senate operations will grow by 8 percent. Another provision will kill an initiative to allow Mexican trucks to travel more widely in the United States.