Senate aims to act on defense measure

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WASHINGTON -- The Senate is poised to vote today on a $630 billion defense appropriations bill that also extends several expiring social programs.

The bill, almost three months overdue, will provide $128 billion for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and includes a 3.4 percent pay raise for soldiers. But it does not include money for President Barack Obama's proposal to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan because the White House has not yet requested funding.

At home, the bill provides money for two more months of expanded unemployment benefits for millions of people.

Democrats had to fend off a Republican filibuster to make today's vote possible. The Republicans' main grievance, however, lay with health care legislation, not the defense bill.

"The bill that is before us is not what is driving the timing of this vote," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, shortly before the vote early yesterday to prevent the filibuster. "I think that what is driving it is health care, and I believe that ... most of us are going to support the Department of Defense appropriations bill when the time is right."

She then called for more time to consider to health care legislation, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is trying to pass by Christmas.

The defense bill represents a partial success for Mr. Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who had lobbied to halt several programs they consider obsolete or wasteful. Those included development of a new presidential helicopter and production of the F-22 fighter jet, which they say is ill-suited to counterinsurgency efforts. But the bill contains $2.5 billion to purchase 10 C-17 cargo jets that the administration did not request.

The defense bill also contains $13.3 billion in non-defense spending, according to Senate staff. Most of that will fund two more months of expanded benefits for people unemployed more than 26 weeks. Otherwise, funding for millions of people would run out at the end of this month. The extension is important, experts say, because the unemployment rate remains at 10 percent, even after a recent decline.

"We have [millions of] people who have been unemployed for more than 26 weeks," said Economic Policy Institute Vice President Ross Eisenbrey. "It's not that people are putting off getting a job -- they can't find a job."

He said that, according to the institute's calculations, there were 6.3 unemployed workers for every job vacancy available.

The bill also gives two-month extensions to the Patriot Act and subsidies for COBRA, which helps workers who lose their jobs keep their health insurance.

On Wednesday, an identical version of the bill sailed through the House on a 395-34 vote. If the Senate passes it today, it will head to Mr. Obama for his signature.

After that, the appropriations process for fiscal year 2010, which began Oct. 1, will be complete, except for areas covered by temporary extensions.


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