US spending bill heads to Senate, but one hitch remains

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Washington (AFP)

A critical $1.3 trillion US federal spending bill passed the first key hurdle in Congress on Thursday, as lawmakers hurried to avoid another embarrassing government shutdown ahead of a rapidly approaching funding deadline.

With a Friday midnight cut-off looming, the catch-all bill comfortably passed the House of Representatives and headed to the Senate.

But a major stumbling block in the form of Senator Rand Paul threatened to stall the bill's momentum.

President Donald Trump has given his blessing to the bipartisan deal that negotiators clinched on Wednesday, even though the White House acknowledged it did not fulfill all of its wishes.

"Is it perfect? No," acknowledged Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget. "Is it exactly what we asked for? No."

But Trump is prepared to sign on, Mulvaney said.

Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan called it a vote "to rebuild our military, secure our borders, and give our service members their largest pay raise in eight years."

The bill sets defense spending levels at $700 billion for the year, an increase of $61 billion over the 2017 cap, while non-defense domestic spending will reach $591 billion, an increase of about 10 percent.

It also includes plenty of politically charged provisions known as riders, which ramp up the level of controversy over the legislation.

It was introduced late Wednesday after weeks of haggling, leaving lawmakers mere hours to peruse and vote on a mega-bill that will touch every aspect of American life.

Several Republican senators said they were aiming for a late Thursday vote, though one party source said that was unlikely.

But Paul could stand in the way. The quick-to-filibuster Republican forced a brief government shutdown last month over the budget, by refusing to consent to leadership's request to hold a vote before the deadline.

On Thursday he tweeted a photo of himself holding a massive stack of paper.

"Well here it is, all 2,232 budget-busting pages," Paul groused. "No one has read it. Congress is broken."

The Senate can act quickly, but only with consent from all members. An objection by a single senator can slow the process.

Paul's office would not say whether he would block a swift vote -- a move that could trigger what would be the third US government shutdown of 2018, and a deep embarrassment for the Republican-led Congress ahead of mid-term elections in November.

"I don't think we know for sure what Rand's going to do yet," Republican Senator John Thune told reporters.

For their part, Democratic leaders sounded pleased at the outcome of negotiations.

"Overall, we Democrats are very happy with what we were able to accomplish on a number of priorities to the middle class and America, including infrastructure, education, opioids, mental health, and child care," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said.

Even while professing his support, Trump lamented having to "waste money" on "Dem giveaways" to secure the military funding.

- 'Extremely disappointed' -

The spending bill provides $1.6 billion -- far less than Trump wanted -- for border security and construction or repair of nearly 100 miles (160 kilometers) of border fencing and barriers, boosts infrastructure spending, and increases funds for student grants.

It leaves intact funding for women's health provider Planned Parenthood, a target of relentless criticism from pro-life Republicans.

But in a major blow to Democrats, it fails to include protections for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country illegally as children, or language that would help prevent the president from firing Robert Mueller, the special counsel heading the investigation of Russia's meddling in the 2016 elections.

And it leaves out a long-sought provision to stabilize the health insurance market by funding subsidies that could lower rates for low-income families by 40 percent.

That negotiation apparently broke down over disputes about abortion-related language in the bill.

"I'm extremely disappointed," said the provision's co-author, Senate Republican Susan Collins.

Among the sensitive issues included is gun safety, which has been a national focus following multiple school shootings, including one in Parkland, Florida that killed 17 people.

One provision strengthens compliance with background checks for firearm sales, and another reverses what has essentially served as a ban on federal research on gun violence.

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