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Spending bill unveiled in US Congress as shutdown deadline looms

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Congress moved a step closer to avoiding another government shutdown with the release on Wednesday of a US$1.3 trillion spending bill designed to appeal to Republicans and Democrats with more money for border security, infrastructure and the military.

[WASHINGTON] Congress moved a step closer to avoiding another government shutdown with the release on Wednesday of a US$1.3 trillion spending bill designed to appeal to Republicans and Democrats with more money for border security, infrastructure and the military.

The proposal includes US$1.6 billion for border security, including money for fencing and levees, though that's only a fraction of the US$25 billion that President Donald Trump wanted to build a wall between the US and Mexico.

The compromise spending proposal, unveiled after repeated delays and all-night bargaining sessions, also has a provision to require stricter reporting by federal agencies to the database for gun-buyer background checks as well as US$21 billion for infrastructure projects and an additional US$4 billion to combat opioid addiction.

The House may vote on the measure as soon as Thursday, though that schedule could slip. The Senate would follow. Current government funding runs out at the end of the day Friday. Congress may still have to pass a stopgap funding bill to keep the government operating if there are any delays in either chamber.

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The measure likely will be the last major piece of legislative business accomplished by lawmakers before they turn attention to the November elections that will decide control of Congress.

'WINS DELIVERED'

House Speaker Paul Ryan delivered a summary of the spending legislation to Trump at the White House Wednesday afternoon. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky joined the meeting, which included Vice-President Mike Pence, by telephone.

Both Mr Ryan's office and the White House released statements afterward saying the president and the two congressional leaders discussed their support for the legislation.

The statement from the speaker's office said they had a conversation "about the wins delivered for the president" in the bill.

"We feel like we're in a very good place", Mr Ryan, of Wisconsin, said earlier in the day after a meeting with congressional leaders from both parties.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York and his House counterpart, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, echoed the sentiment. "I think we will present to our members something they can comfortably support," Ms Pelosi said.

DEMOCRATIC VOTES

Mr Ryan and Mr McConnell likely will have to rely on Democrats to help pass the bill because some Republican conservatives object to higher spending levels that are at the centre of the deal, as well as other provisions.

Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican who is chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said that is was "troublesome" that leaders were trying to push it though the House a day after releasing the bill. "There is not a single member of congress that can actually read it."

Senator John Kennedy said he was leaning toward voting against the spending plan based on what he knew about it, adding that as of Wednesday afternoon he knew very little."I feel like I'm a victim of mushroom management - keep me in the dark and feed me manure," the Louisiana Republican said.

HIGHER SPENDING

The measure would increase spending on the military by US$80 billion and on domestic programs by US$63 billion over previous budget limits set out in the bipartisan budget agreement that ended a February shutdown.

In addition to the US$1.2 trillion in overall funding that was agreed to in February, the military would receive US$71 billion in war funds not subject to budget caps.

One of the biggest obstacles to reaching the agreement was the status of funding for a Hudson River tunnel between New York and New Jersey.

Advocates, mainly Democrats and Republicans representing the two states, argued it is one of the most important infrastructure projects in the US.

But Mr Trump has insisted on removing money for the project, known as Gateway, from the spending plan.

The spending agreement omits language steering money to the Gateway project, although the project could access about half the funds supporters are seeking - as much as US$541 million - through other accounts, one congressional aide said. Additional funding would be available to the project through Amtrak and grants that don't require approval from the US Department of Transportation, the aide said.

BACKGROUND CHECKS

Negotiators agreed to include a measure backed by Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas that would close gaps in the existing federal background check system to better spot criminal records of would-be gun buyers.

It was first proposed after a mass shooting at a Texas last year and gained momentum after the massacre at a Florida high school last month. It would also permit the Centres for Disease Control to research the health effects of gun violence.

The bill would contain funding to combat Russian interference in this year's elections, and it would provide more than US$600 million to build a new rural broadband network.

Also included is a modification to the new tax-cut law passed last December that was sought by some agricultural groups. The current law contains a provision that promoted sales to farm co-ops at the expense of grain companies.

INSURANCE PREMIUMS

But a plan supported by Republican Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee to help stabilise insurance premiums on Obamacare's troubled exchanges was left out of the broad spending deal. Attempts to get an agreement collapsed over Democratic objections to abortion-funding restrictions demanded by Republicans.

While lawmakers worked on the spending measure, prospects for other major legislation this year - including a farm bill, an overhaul of the Dodd-Frank banking law and an infrastructure package - have worsened over the last week. An overhaul of aviation regulation planned for the summer is unlikely to produce major changes.

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