Senate OKs critical budget bill

WASHINGTON — The Senate cleared its year-end plate of some must-do work Saturday as it passed a critical budget bill that blends money for the Pentagon with additional help for the jobless.

The early morning 88-10 vote, taken as a blizzard buffeted the Capitol, permitted lawmakers to resume their debate on health care, which Democrats expect to finish by Christmas. The spending measure now goes to President Obama for his signature.

It wraps up work on perhaps Congress' most fundamental job: funding the annual budgets of Cabinet agencies and the rest of the government.

But the $626 billion defense bill measure also demonstrated the failings of a Congress unable to address many of its most pressing tasks, such as passing a highway bill and making sure doctors don't absorb a 21 percent hit in Medicare payments. In a boon for the wealthy, the estate tax temporarily will expire Jan. 1, even as people inheriting smaller amounts will face larger capital gains bills.

Having run out of time and patience, Democrats used the must-pass Pentagon measure to drag along several two-month extensions of expiring legislation. They include unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, health care subsidies for those out of work, highway and transit money and parts of the terrorism-fighting Patriot Act.

Resolving those issues in February would clutter next year's agenda as Obama's Democratic allies turn to trying to rein in the spiraling budget deficit and passing his upcoming request for additional troops in Afghanistan, which promises to be a difficult task.

The vote Saturday was evidence of support for paying for troops fighting overseas and other elements of the Pentagon budget.

The path to that point, however, was slowed as Republicans sought to derail the measure in an effort to stretch out action on health care past Christmas.

"Senate Republicans have made us jump through every procedural hurdle just to have this vote and threatened to block funding for our troops — all in order to delay us from debating health care reform," said Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.