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Spending bills advancing despite budget impasse

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Even as Congress is blowing its deadline to produce a budget, a once-dominant Senate committee tried to reassert itself and move ahead on 12 annual spending bills that for years have been offered as a take-it-or-leave-it bundle.

The Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously approved two of the most popular spending measures on Thursday, providing spending increases for veterans and funding popular energy and water development programs. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., promised to spend three months of the Senate's time for floor debates on the measures, trying to revive an appropriations process that broke years ago.

But a companion House effort faces an uncertain future, as GOP conservatives derailed the efforts of House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to pass a separate, broader budget plan. Many GOP conservatives oppose both the GOP budget and the follow-up spending bills, which include higher spending levels of last year's budget deal.

Along the way, senators debated topics such as in-vitro fertilization benefits for veterans, medical marijuana and closing the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The underlying bills fund veterans programs, construction on military bases, upgrading the nuclear weapons stockpile, and energy research.

In moving the legislation, seasoned legislators like Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., sought to revive the Senate's bipartisan past. One moment featured Senate Democratic campaign chairman Jon Tester of Montana praising Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, who is a top target for Democrats this year.

Republicans dropped controversial environmental policy "riders" of prior years, and Democrats praised the moves of panel Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and McConnell for trying to restore open debate and amendment of the 12 must-do measures.

The panel is something of a throwback in today's electronic age. Cochran, like his predecessors, refuses to release legislation in advance of panel debates and the public was denied admission to Thursday's meeting since the historic room in which it was held is too small. Only a handful of reporters was admitted.

Under Washington's arcane budget rules, it typically takes passage of a broader but nonbinding measure known as a budget resolution to move ahead on the follow-up spending bills. An obscure provision in last year's budget deal has exempted the Senate from this requirement. The House Appropriations Committee is forging forward nonetheless but may run into roadblocks in either getting its bills to the floor or winning bipartisan support once they're there.

Friday is the deadline for passing the budget. Ryan, who successfully maneuvered through four cycles as chairman of the Budget Committee, has been flummoxed by conservatives, who oppose the budget because it endorses higher funding for domestic agencies as demanded by President Barack Obama last year.

"The Ryan budget that has been proposed is the most devastating road-to-ruin budget in history," said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "And even that wasn't brutal enough for the radical forces that have taken control and dominate the House Republican caucus."

Meanwhile, the Senate panel adopted a provision by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., that would provide in-vitro fertilization benefits to veterans. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., won renewal of a provision to allow Veterans Administration doctors to discuss medical marijuana with their patients. The lengthiest debate of the more than two-hour session involved a move by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., to make it easier for surviving merchant mariners from World War II to file paperwork to claim their medals.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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