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Agreement near on $1 trillion spending bill

By Andrew Taylor

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Dec. 15 2011 1:46 p.m. MST

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif. gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011.

Susan Walsh, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Bipartisan agreement is near on a massive $1 trillion-plus year-end spending package and should be reached in time avert a possible government shutdown this weekend, lawmakers said Thursday.

House Republicans were displaying renewed flexibility on a provision restricting travel to Cuba, but Democrats conceded defeat on a GOP demand to ban the District of Columbia's government from funding abortions.

The optimism came hours after Republicans said they planned to push the 1,200-plus-page legislation through the House with only GOP votes, which seemed like a bluff considering tea party opposition to the measure. Overnight, Republicans unveiled details of the bill, which curbs agency budgets but drops most policy provisions sought by GOP conservatives.

Democrats had been holding up the huge bill, seeking leverage in talks on extending payroll tax cuts and unemployment insurance, two pillars of President Barack Obama's jobs agenda.

But Thursday morning, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he had talked to top Senate Democrats who helped write the spending bill and that remaining issues "should be resolvable." He and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., expressed optimism that disputes over that bill and a separate measure extending a payroll tax cut were near an end. Release of a bipartisan version seemed hours away.

The spending bill contains language to roll back Obama's loosening of restrictions on the rights of Cubans to send money to relatives on the island or travel to the island to visit them. Earlier this year, the White House promised a veto over the restrictions on travel and gifts, which are supported by Republican Cuban-American lawmakers, a powerful political force in the swing state of Florida.

Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., said that Republicans were negotiating over the Cuba provision but were unwilling to drop it entirely. He said Democratic leaders had given up opposing a provision banning the District of Columbia government from funding abortions for poor women.

Release of the legislation came just a couple of hours after the White House issued a statement saying that Obama "continues to have significant concerns about a number of provisions" in the legislation.

White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer called for another stopgap funding bill to buy time for talks on both the spending and the payroll tax measures. Funding runs out Friday at midnight.

The underlying bill has bipartisan backing but could encounter turbulence with conservative tea party lawmakers seeking far more significant cuts to government agencies. The measure pays for day-to-day operating budgets of 10 Cabinet departments and programs ranging from border security to flood control to combating AIDS and famine in Africa.

Days after saying that the measure was wrapped up, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., acknowledged that talks had been reopened. It was unclear whether there would be additional changes beyond the Cuba provision.

The legislation was posted on the Internet Wednesday night to meet House transparency rules, though accompanying documents providing details may not be available until tonight, just a few hours before Friday's scheduled vote.

On spending, the measure implements this summer's hard-fought budget pact between Obama and Republican leaders. That deal essentially freezes agency budgets, on average, at levels that were approved back in April for the recently completed budget year.

The bill chips away at the Pentagon budget, foreign aid and environmental spending but boosts funding for veterans programs. The Securities and Exchange Commission, responsible for enforcing new regulations under last year's financial overhaul, won a 10 percent budget increase, even as the tax-collecting IRS absorbs more than a 3 percent cut to its budget.

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