Spending bill clears first hurdle in Senate

The U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, is seen February 28, 2013. Two competing bills aimed at averting huge spending cuts failed February 28, 2013 in the Senate, virtually assuring that the USD 85 billion in indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts known as the sequester will kick in after the March 1, 2013 deadline.
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WASHINGTON A bipartisan full-year funding bill took a big step forward in the Senate on Monday, despite opposition from Republicans who were denied chances to offer money aimed at addressing home state problems like looming closures of air traffic control towers.

The legislation advanced on a 63-35 procedural vote that sets up a vote on Tuesday to pass the measure and send it back to the House, which is likely to clear it later this week for President Barack Obama's signature. Ten Republicans, mostly members of the appropriations committee, joined with Democrats to send the measure over the 60-vote hurdle set by Republicans.

The sweeping 587-page measure would set a path for government in the wake of across-the-board spending cuts that took effect March 1 and prevent a government shutdown at the end of the month when funding for the day-to-day operations of every Cabinet department expires. It covers the rest of the 2013 budget year, which expires Sept. 30.

The measure gives the Pentagon much-sought money for military readiness but adds money sought by Democrats and Republicans alike for domestic programs.

While top Senate leaders like No. 1 Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada focused on the big picture - preventing a government shutdown - rank-and-file senators were sweating the small stuff, focusing on local concerns like keeping meat inspectors on the job, preventing furloughs at rural airports and trying to ease layoffs at Army depots.

The opposition was led by Republicans such as Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire - denied a vote on an amendment shirting $360 million to military readiness - and Jerry Moran of Kansas, who wants money to keep air traffic controllers at six small airports in his states.

There were also amendments proposed to add restrictions on U.S. aid to Egypt and re-open the White House to tours.

There had once been speculation that the measure could be a potential vehicle to turn off painful across-the-board spending cuts of 5 percent to domestic programs and 8 percent to the Pentagon but now much of the focus is on bread-and-butter issues as facilities back home begin to absorb the cuts.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., is pressing to shore up accounts funding the salaries for contractors at Army facilities like the Tobyhanna Army Depot, which plans to lay off 418 civilian contract employees in the coming weeks, though the $60 million he's proposing to add would barely make a dent in the layoffs.

A particularly popular amendment by Sens. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., would shift $55 million from lower-priority Agriculture Department accounts to prevent furloughs of thousands of food inspectors. The meatpacking and poultry industries say the move is needed to prevent intermittent closure of 6,300 food inspection plants, threatening more than 500,000 workers with nearly $400 million in lost wages.

Even that amendment had a one-step-forward, two-steps-back quality to it since the additional money would not fully make up for the money to be struck by the across-the-board cuts.

"Without this funding, every meat, poultry, and egg processing facility in the country would be forced to shut down for up to two weeks," Blunt said in a statement. "That means high food prices and less work for the hardworking Americans who work in these facilities nationwide."

Democrats and Republicans are trying to reverse cuts that would close 138 air traffic control towers at smaller airports across the country, while supporters of military personnel want to restore funding for a Pentagon program that helps pay tuition so active military can attend college part time.