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Senate approves government spending bill, ending fear of shutdown

Senate showdown gives new life to Carolyn Colvin's nomination to lead Social Security.

The Senate gave final approval late Saturday to a $1 trillion spending bill after muscling past opposition from conservative Republicans — an effort that ended any possibility of a government shutdown until next fall.

With the holiday congressional break looming — and Democrats capitalizing on an awkward intraparty squabble among Republicans — lawmakers struck a deal to pass the massive spending bill during a rare weekend session after days of drama and political maneuvering.

The Senate approved the measure, 56-40.

President Barack Obama has voiced his support for the bill, which will keep most federal agencies open through the end of September, pump $2.7 billion into federal coffers to confront Ebola and dedicate $5 billion to oppose Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq.

The bill's passage marked a political victory for Senate Appropriations Committee chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat and a chief architect of the measure. Mikulski and Democratic leaders managed to move the bill through Congress despite deep concerns voiced by members of both parties.

Conservative Senate Republicans appeared to acquiesce to the legislation after their attempt to slow it down in opposition to Obama's immigration actions accomplished little, other than allowing Democrats to use the newfound time to approve Obama's long-stalled nominees to several agencies.

Among the nominees benefiting from the wrangling was Vivek Murthy, the president's pick for surgeon general, who was a target of groups like the powerful National Rifle Association for his advocacy on stricter gun laws. Democrats also advanced Marylander Carolyn W. Colvin, whom Obama nominated in June to lead the Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration.

Some Republican senators fumed as a strategy developed by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas intended to undercut Obama's immigration actions appeared to backfire.

"I don't see an end goal other than irritating a lot of people," quipped Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican.

Hours after lawmakers brokered the deal to move beyond Cruz's objections, the Senate approved a procedural motion on a 77-19 vote to advance the spending bill.

For Maryland, the measure includes $100 million for the Red Line, $63 million for the port of Baltimore and $1.5 billion over a decade to update Metro's infrastructure.

But the legislation also contains controversial policy riders opposed by liberal Democrats — including language that would allow wealthy donors to give ten times the current limit to political parties and roll back landmark regulations Congress approved to avoid another financial meltdown.

An amendment that may bar the District of Columbia from legalizing marijuana — despite a referendum in which city residents overwhelmingly supported that move — was also included in the bill. Rep. Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican and an anesthesiologist, was a chief proponent of that language.

The House passed the bill on Thursday.

"Despite these continued challenges, the spending measure is an important step for us to take together as a nation," said Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, who praised Mikulski while calling on Congress to pass spending bills in a more measured way next year. "We need to demonstrate to the people of this nation that we're doing their business," he said.

Republicans will take control of both chambers in the next Congress that begins in January.

The most significant consequence of the legislation for Maryland is that the federal government will avoid another shutdown like the one that took place last year, shuttering agencies for 16 days.

Because of its proximity to Washington and its high concentration of federal employees and contractors, economists say shutdowns have a disproportionate effect in the state. Maryland is home to some 300,000 federal workers, about 10 percent of its civilian workforce.

As the Senate grappled with the larger spending bill on Saturday, lawmakers effortlessly approved a short-term bill to keep the government open through the end of Wednesday.

The broader legislation's approval represented an accomplishment for Mikulski, who took over the Appropriations Committee in late 2012 vowing to move the government away from stopgap spending bills that circumvented gridlock but kept agencies on autopilot. Though the so-called omnibus was not precisely what she had in mind, the measure gave Congress a chance to influence policy through spending in a way that has been exceedingly rare in recent years.

Tribune Newspapers' Washington bureau contributed to this article.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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