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GOP filibuster ends, spending vote today

Democrats in the Senate mustered the strength to advance the $1.1 trillion bill.

WASHINGTON - The Democratic-controlled Senate yesterday cleared away a Republican filibuster of a huge end-of-year spending bill that rewards most federal agencies with generous budget boosts.

The $1.1 trillion measure combines much of the year's unfinished budget work - only a $626 billion Pentagon spending measure would remain - into a 1,000-plus-page spending bill that would give the Education Department, the State Department, the Department of Health and Human Services, and others increases far exceeding inflation.

The 60-34 vote met the minimum threshold to end the GOP filibuster. A final vote was set for this afternoon to send the measure to President Obama.

Democrats held the vote open for an hour to accommodate Sen. Joe Lieberman (I., Conn.), an Orthodox Jew who walked more than three miles to the Capitol to vote on the Sabbath after attending services at his synagogue in the city's Georgetown neighborhood. Lieberman wore a black wool overcoat and brilliant orange scarf - as well as a wide grin - as he provided the crucial 60th vote.

The measure combines $447 billion in operating budgets with about $650 billion in mandatory payments for federal benefit programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. It wraps together six individual spending bills and also contains more than 5,000 back-home projects sought by lawmakers in both parties.

The measure provides spending increases averaging about 10 percent to programs under immediate control of Congress, blending increases for veterans' programs, NASA, and the FBI with a pay raise for federal workers and help for car dealers.

It bundles six of the 12 annual spending bills, capping a dysfunctional appropriations process for the budget year that began Oct. 1, in which House leaders blocked Republicans from debating key issues and Senate Republicans dragged out debates.

The $626 billion defense bill that would remain is being held back to serve as a vehicle to advance must-pass legislation, such as a plan to allow the government's debt to swell by nearly $2 trillion. The government's total debt has nearly doubled in the last seven years and is expected to exceed the current ceiling of $12.1 trillion before Jan. 1.

Republicans said the measure - on top of February's $787 billion economic stimulus bill and a generous omnibus measure for the 2009 budget year - spends too much money in a time when the government is running astronomical deficits.

"Obviously we need to run the government, but do you suppose the government could be a little bit like families and be just a little bit prudent in how much it spends?" said Sen. Jon Kyl (R., Ariz.).

But the second-ranking Senate Democrat, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, said the measure restored money for programs cut under President George W. Bush such as popular grant programs for local police departments to purchase equipment and put more officers on the beat.

The measure contains 5,224 pet projects for lawmakers totaling $3.9 billion, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based watchdog group.

Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.), who leads the transportation, housing, and community development spending panel, obtained 61 earmarks worth $68.8 million in programs under her jurisdiction, including $1.2 million for infrastructure improvements for the Port of Everett.

The bill also would offer an improved binding-arbitration process to challenge the decision by General Motors and Chrysler to close more than 2,000 dealerships.