Saturday, December 09, 2006

House passes stopgap funds until February 15

House passes stopgap funds until February 15
By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The House of Representatives approved legislation on Friday to keep the U.S. government running through February 15 after the outgoing Republican-led Congress failed to approve a series of regular spending bills.

By a vote of 370-20, the House approved the stopgap funds shortly before a midnight deadline. The Senate was expected to follow suit, which would clear the way for President George W. Bush to sign the measure into law.

Without the legislation, many government programs ranging from farm subsidies to foreign aid could have come to a halt this weekend.

The stopgap spending vote came after nine of the 11 appropriations bills for the fiscal year that began in October stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Democratic Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, the next chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, called the temporary spending bill "a blatant admission of abject failure by the most useless Congress in modern times."

It will now be up to Democrats who take control of the next Congress, to figure out how to allocate funds for the rest of the fiscal year.

Both Republicans and Democrats in the House complained about having to pass this stopgap spending bill.

The current House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis, a California Republican, put blame " the feet" of retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, saying he had failed to move the spending bills through the Senate.

With a space shuttle scheduled to lift off on Saturday, the House vote provided relief for NASA workers, some of whom could have faced immediate layoff.

NASA spokesman Gray Hautaloma said a government shutdown would not have affected essential personnel who support the shuttle mission. "The poor astronauts are not going to be stranded in space," he said.

Other programs could suffer as the temporary funding either freezes spending at last year's levels or makes reductions. That formula thwarts efforts by many lawmakers' to reverse program cuts for the poor this year.

A senior Bush administration official recently complained that law enforcement initiatives to hire more U.S. attorneys and prosecutors and expand prison space also would stall.

Overall, the programs still in need of funding through the end of September would cost the government about $460 billion this fiscal year.

The stopgap bill shifts around some Veterans' Administration accounts so that $1.7 billion in added funds are available for veterans' health care programs stretched thin by injured soldiers returning from the Iraq war.

The only two fiscal 2007 spending bills enacted, which together amount to nearly $500 billion, fund the military and domestic security programs.

Obey said this Congress' failure to finish fiscal 2007 appropriations was "muddying the waters" for consideration of Bush's fiscal 2008 budget proposal, which is expected to be sent to Capitol Hill early next year.