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Congress Wraps Up Work

US Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (L), R-TN, gestures as he speaks outside the White House after meeting with US President George W. Bush 08 September 2005, as House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-IL, looks on.
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Congress finalized a defense spending bill that funnels extra money to the Gulf Coast and Iraq. The GOP-run Congress completed the two bills in a scramble to finish a year complicated by standoffs with Democrats and disagreements among Republicans.

Congress also gave the Bush administration's anti-terrorism powers one more month of life Thursday, with work finished by a lone senator sitting in the virtually empty Senate chamber.

The defense bill keeps the Pentagon running, while also channeling $29 billion in hurricane aid to the Gulf Coast and $50 billion more to military action in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Patriot Act extension keeps anti-terrorism laws that were due to expire Dec. 31 in place until Feb. 3. It allows the FBI to continue to investigate terrorism cases using powers granted in 2001, include roving wiretaps and the authority to intercept wire, spoken and electronic communications relating to terrorism.

Congress completed the legislation even though most lawmakers had already headed home for the holidays. Congressional rules allow bills to pass without a recorded vote as long as no lawmaker objects.

House approval sent the defense bill to the president, including its $3.8 billion for bird flu preparedness and liability protections for flu drug manufacturers. The $29 billion for the Gulf Coast included $11.5 billion for community grants to spur economic development, along with aid for schools and money to start shoring up New Orleans' levees.

President Bush applauded Congress' passage of the troop-funding bill and said he looks forward to signing it.

"This funding will help us continue to hunt down the terrorists, pursue our strategy for victory in Iraq and make America more secure," he said in a statement.

But it will not be the Christmas present the administration wished for after Republicans earlier lost a quarter-century campaign to open the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

That drilling authority was stripped out of the bill. The change also eliminated roughly $2 billion in emergency aid for low-income families facing high heating bills this winter.

Three of the Senate's Northeast Republicans secured a promise from GOP and Democratic leaders to enact $2 billion in emergency funding for heating assistance in January, after the Senate votes on Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court.

Lawmakers also could find themselves debating the Patriot Act anew in January after putting the law on a short leash, extending it to Feb. 3, instead of the six months originally planned.