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Congress OK’s stripped-down spending bill

President is expected to sign measure

By Andrew Taylor
Associated Press / December 22, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Congress passed a stopgap funding bill last night to keep the government open into March, when Republicans will have greater power to cut federal spending.

On a 193-to-165 vote, the House backed a stripped-down measure that would freeze pay for federal employees, provide $160 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and head off cuts in Pell grants for college tuition. The Senate approved the bill hours earlier, 79-16.

Excluded from the measure were thousands of proposed pet projects known as earmarks, and provisions opposed by the White House that would have prevented a trial on US soil of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks who is being held at the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The bill goes to President Obama, who was expected to sign it before midnight last night, when a lack of funds would have forced a government shutdown.

The measure is needed because the Democratic-controlled Congress — in an unprecedented breakdown of the budget process — has failed to pass a single one of the 12 annual spending bills that fund the day-to-day operations of every federal agency.

The spending bill is expected to protect, at least temporarily, a large defense contract funding a jet engine that would be partially built in Lynn, Mass. General Electric, which makes the backup prototype engine to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, said the program would provide up to 400 jobs in Lynn.

Although the legislation does not include a specific provision for the backup engine, a key interpretation from the Office of Management and Budget indicates the project will continue to be funded. The budget office sent a letter to several senators, including Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, saying the legislation would allow funding for the project to continue.

The legislation also includes a provision that allows the Navy to award 10 new coastal ships. The combat ships would be built by a consortium including General Dynamics, which said it would add 500 jobs to an electronics plant in Pittsfield if the project is approved. The Pentagon has backed the move to increase the order of new ships from 10 to 20.

“When jobs come and go it can hollow out a community and we all worked our tails off to make sure that didn’t happen,’’ Kerry said in a statement. “We’ve been on pins and needles to see if we were successful and it ended up better than we could have hoped.’’

The chain of events sets up a confrontation next year between Obama and Republicans, who will control the House.

The next speaker of the House, John Boehner of Ohio, and other GOP leaders have promised to try to cut most domestic agency budgets back to pre-Obama levels. Such cuts would exceed 20 percent for some agencies.

Republicans say such cuts would produce savings of $100 billion compared with Obama’s February budget request.

But with the government operating at current levels for almost half of the fiscal year, the actual savings that Republicans might be able to accomplish are likely to be considerably smaller. The budget year began Oct. 1.

Republicans will have increased leverage, but Democrats will retain control of the Senate and the White House. The threat of a government shutdown is real if Democrats and resurgent Republicans can’t agree.

Additional stopgap spending measures may be needed next year if the battle drags on, as seems likely.

At issue is the approximately one-third of the budget passed each year by Congress to fund day-to-day operations of the 15 Cabinet departments and other agencies.

The rest of the budget is dominated by benefit programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and the Medicaid health care program for the poor and disabled.

Globe reporter Matt Viser contributed to this report. Material from Bloomberg News was also used.