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Senate passes spending bill for defense

Pentagon will get $636 billion, which includes $130 billion for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

WASHINGTON - In a rare early Saturday morning vote, the Senate overcame several hurdles - including the one out of its control, a raging snowstorm - to pass the Pentagon's massive spending bill that includes nearly $130 billion for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

On a 88-10 vote, the Senate sent the defense-appropriations bill to the White House, clearing the last spending measure for the federal government. All Philadelphia-area senators voted in favor of the measure.

This sets the stage for the last throes of months-long negotiation and debate over the president's most important domestic agenda item for his first year in office: sweeping health-care changes.

The defense legislation includes normal funding for the wars, but it does not include what likely will be $30 billion to $40 billion in additional money for the 30,000 additional troops President Obama plans to send to Afghanistan next year, funds that will not come before Congress until next spring.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) called the vote "a good strong message we sent to the men and women" in the military, but that vote masked a bitter partisan battle during the previous two days that had little to do with the Pentagon.

Republicans had tried to block consideration of the defense bill with a filibuster, an usual move for a party that staunchly backed the Pentagon's handling of the wars this decade, but they acknowledged it was an effort to delay the Democratic plans to pass health-care legislation by Christmas. On the last attempt at delaying the bill, a 60-vote threshold, 57 Democrats, two independents who caucus with Democrats, and four Republicans voted to beat back the GOP effort at raising a point of order against the legislation.

Once those efforts were defeated and the return to the health-care debate was a foregone conclusion, 29 Republicans supported the final vote for military funding. One Democrat, Sen. Russell Feingold (D., Wis.), voted against the bill, in line with his antiwar beliefs, but he provided Democrats a critical vote in an early Friday morning GOP filibuster attempt. Nine Republicans opposed the final passage of the legislation yesterday.

The toughest battle for senators, however, was likely the weather outside. The storm sweeping across the Washington region has buried Capitol Hill, making many roads impassable. The Senate's Sergeant-at-Arms office alerted the lawmakers' top aides that, should senators and top aides get snowed in, security staff would be dispatched to their homes to ferry them to the Capitol in SUVs.

Some senior staff stayed at a nearby hotel on Capitol Hill. The only senators who were not in attendance were Sen. Joe Lieberman (I., Conn.), whom Democratic and GOP leaders assured that his vote was not needed and returned home Friday to celebrate the last night of Hanukkah with his family, and Sen. Judd Gregg (R., N.H.), who had family obligations in his home state.

Senators wore sweaters under their suit jackets, and boots were standard attire, worn by the likes of Sen. John D. Rockefeller 4th (D., W.Va.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.). Sen. Robert Byrd, the 92-year-old Democrat from West Virginia, received an ovation from colleagues when he appeared on the floor to cast his vote, wearing a dark blue suit and red, white, and blue tie.

Byrd, who uses a wheelchair, casts votes usually only on the most important matters.

The defense-spending bill includes $626 billion for critical Pentagon functions and an additional $10 billion for employee pension funds.

Almost as important, it includes a host of add-ons, many of them two-month extensions that will keep various current laws intact until late February, when Congress will have to undergo another flurry of deal making.