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Senate approves U.S. budget bill, ends shutdown threat

U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) boards the subway to the senate office buildings at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, January 15, 2014. R
U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) boards the subway to the senate office buildings at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, January 15, 2014. R

By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Washington's battles over government funding ended with a whimper on Thursday as the U.S. Senate approved a $1.1 trillion spending bill that quells for nearly nine months the threat of another federal agency shutdown.

The measure, which funds thousands of government programs from the military to national parks through the September 30 fiscal year-end, passed on a strong, 72-26 bipartisan vote. President Barack Obama is expected to sign it into law by Saturday.

The vote came exactly three months after the end of a 16-day government shutdown in October that was waged over disputed funding of "Obamacare," the president's signature health care law.

"We're a little late, but we have gotten the job done," Senate Appropriations Committee Barbara Mikulski said on the Senate floor.

The fiscal focus in Congress now turns to debate over another boost in the $17 trillion federal debt limit. An increase could be needed in as little as six weeks.

Republicans have not said what they will demand in return for lifting the borrowing cap, but House Speaker John Boehner signaled to reporters on Thursday that he has little desire for a massive fight that threatens a damaging U.S. debt default.

The United States "shouldn't even get close to it," he told reporters, calling for quick action on a bill to increase the limit.

DEVIL IN DETAILS

The Senate accelerated its normal debate procedures to vote on the spending bill more quickly, avoiding a delayed start to a week-long holiday recess - even though most lawmakers had not read much of the 1,582-page measure.

The massive spending bill was only introduced on Monday evening, and it includes some controversial provisions that are only just now coming to light.

A taxpayer advocacy group, Taxpayers for Common Sense, described as "outrageous" a provision that would continue uranium enrichment research by USEC Inc for some $62 million this year, despite the company's announcement in December that it would file a pre-packaged bankruptcy reorganization plan.

Boehner defended the provision for the company, which was privatized in 1992 from former Department of Energy assets, including a facility in his home state of Ohio.

"There's all different types of bankruptcy proceedings. It is a uranium enrichment facility with new technology. There's been a bipartisan effort to proceed with this research that they're doing," Boehner said.

FUNDING FATIGUE

The swift consideration of the measure reflects a desire by members of both parties in both the House and Senate to put the fiscal battles behind them and ensure government funding during an election year.

The measure eases some of the automatic, "sequester" spending cuts by providing an additional $45 billion in funding, split evenly between military and domestic programs.

But Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who launched an effort to gut funding for Obama's signature healthcare law, remained defiant, saying that Democrats were allowing Americans to suffer from negative effects of the health insurance reforms.

Cruz, whose push to remove funding for the health law fueled the government shutdown, tried again to stop funding for the law but his amendment was blocked by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat.

"The Majority leader and Senate Democrats are not listening to the American people," Cruz said. "Instead they have chosen a course of conduct, doing nothing, that is not responsible."

(Reporting by David Lawder, Editing by Gary Crosse, David Gregorio and Ken Wills)

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