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US Government Funding Wins Final Congressional Approval

Senators Charles Schumer, left, and Bob Casey talk to the media at the Capitol in Washington December 17, 2011, after the U.S. Senate voted to fund government operations through the end of the current fiscal year, which ends September 30, 2012.

The U.S. Senate has voted to fund the federal government through September of next year, the final legislative action needed to avoid a threatened partial government shutdown.

The congressional upper chamber also voted to extend a cut in taxes that fund Social Security, a federal program that provides income to retirees.

For most of the year, U.S. lawmakers follow political, and often partisan, imperatives when conducting the nation’s business.

But in late December, a different imperative emerges: a desire to wrap up legislation so that lawmakers can get home ahead of the Christmas and New Year holidays. The end result is sudden and swift compromise, producing last-minute bills that get voted on with a minimum of debate, often before lawmakers even have a chance to fully read the legislation.

The Senate’s top Democrat, Majority Leader Harry Reid, spoke Saturday moments before the chamber approved close to $1 trillion to fund the federal government through the end of the current fiscal year - a bill more than a thousand pages long.

“It was compromise. The omnibus [spending bill] - there are lots of things in that that I do not like. And I will bet you every senator here has things in that [bill] that they do not like. But that is the way we were able to bring this accomplishment that is important for the American people.”

The Republican leader, Senator Mitch McConnell, agreed.

“In order to achieve something around here, you have got to compromise. What we have done here is craft a bill that is not designed to fail, but to pass.”

The federal funding bill was approved 67 to 32, one day after it passed the House of Representatives.

The Senate also approved a two-month extension of a payroll tax cut that boosts paychecks for 160 million Americans. Democrats had sought a full-year extension, to be paid for by a surtax on millionaires' income.

Republicans wanted no surtax, and a provision to speed White House consideration of a proposed oil pipeline from Canada. Business interests and labor unions back the project. Environmentalists oppose it. President Barack Obama sought to delay a final decision for a year.

In the end, the payroll tax cut was extended for two months, with a provision forcing the White House to either approve or reject the oil pipeline within 60 days.

Despite strong bipartisan backing for both bills, many lawmakers vented frustrations. Republican Senator John McCain accused his colleagues of putting their personal holiday schedules ahead of their duty to spend money wisely.

“We have just wasted billions and billions of taxpayers’ money on projects that are unneeded, unwanted. It is outrageous. But never mind, because we are going to go home for Christmas.”

From a different ideological perspective, independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont lamented spending reductions in programs that benefit the poor and vulnerable without asking sacrifice of America’s wealthiest citizens.

“Once again, as we talk about deficit reduction, we are going to cut this program, we are going to cut that program. And yet the wealthy - millionaires and billionaires - are not going to be asked to pay one nickel more in taxes. I think that is wrong.”

The House of Representatives is expected to take up the payroll tax cut in coming days.