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Bill funds wars, expands GI Bill benefits

WASHINGTON — The Senate completed action last week on a bill that continues funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while approving new spending for veterans education, unemployment assistance and flood relief.

The Senate voted 92-6 for the bill’s final segment, authorizing $21 billion for domestic spending. The House and Senate earlier had finalized $165.4 billion to support military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Senate vote allowed the entire package to be sent to President Bush, who has indicated he would sign it into law. Congress and Bush aides had negotiated the bill over the course of weeks.

The bill contains a major expansion of the GI Bill. It allows veterans serving since Sept. 11, 2001, for a period of 36 months to attend any public university in their home state for four years, plus a housing allowance.

It offers a 13-week extension of federal unemployment benefits. Also, it postpones six cost-cutting Medicaid regulations that critics said would fray health coverage for the poor and disabled.

Sens. Harry Reid, D-Nev, and John Ensign, R-Nev., voted for the bill.

HOUSE APPROVES TAX ‘PATCH’

The House approved a one-year bill to “patch” the alternative minimum tax that otherwise would have raised taxes on more than 20 million individuals this year.

Lawmakers voted 233-189 for the reprieve from the “alternative minimum tax.” Unless Congress adjusts the law, more middle income taxpayers would fall into a special category and be hit with higher levies.

The vote fell largely along party lines. Most Republicans objected because the tax relief would be financed by $62 billion in tax increases elsewhere, including on oil and gas companies, private equity managers and some foreign owned corporations.

Supporters said the so-called AMT patch would rescue middle-class taxpayers. Critics said the offsetting tax increases would further stifle the economy and kill jobs.

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., voted for the bill. Reps. Jon Porter and Dean Heller, both R-Nev., voted against it.

MIXED RESULTS ON ENERGY BILLS

A week before they were to face constituents over the July 4 holiday, lawmakers scrambled to show some progress against high gasoline and energy costs.

The results were mixed.

Lawmakers voted 322-98 for a bill that would offer $1.7 billion in grants to communities that expand their public transportation and reduce fares.

Berkley and Porter voted for the bill. Heller voted against it.

Another bill that passed by a wide margin directed regulators to toughen oversight of oil futures trading.

Several other bills fell victim to partisan fighting, as Republicans and Democrats sought to blame each other for high gasoline prices.

A Democratic “use it or lose it” bill to take away production leases that are not being used by energy companies was defeated.

The vote was 223-195 in favor of the bill, but Democrats brought it to the floor under a fast-track procedure that blocked Republican amendments but required a two-thirds vote to pass.

Democrats contended there is no need to open up the nation’s coastlines and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling as industry has suggested when leases on about 68 million acres of land and coastal waters are not being exploited.

Republicans, some Democrats and outside analysts said the bill would do little to encourage more exploration.

Companies routinely obtain leases on broad swaths of land in hopes that oil and gas might be discovered on some portions, they said.

Berkley voted for the bill. Heller and Porter voted against it.

A bill that authorized the Federal Trade Commission to investigate and pursue gasoline price gougers also failed. The vote was 276-146, but again a two-thirds majority was needed.

Bush came out against the bill, declaring it amounted to price controls.

Berkley and Heller voted for the bill. Porter voted against it.

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