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U.S. Senate passes budget deal, focus shifts to spending

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Senate passed a two-year budget deal on Wednesday to ease automatic spending cuts and reduce the risk of a government shutdown, but fights were already breaking out over how to implement the budget pact.

By a vote of 64-36, the Senate sent the measure to President Barack Obama to be signed into law, an achievement for a divided Congress that has failed to agree on a budget since 2009.

The deal, passed in the House of Representatives last week by an overwhelming margin, restores overall fiscal 2014 spending levels for government agencies to US$1.012 trillion, trimming the across-the-board budget cuts that were set to begin next month by about US$63 billion over two years.

Now, there will be a mad dash by the House and Senate Appropriations committees to cobble together a massive spending bill that implements the deal and carves up the funding pie among thousands of government programs from national parks to the military.

Without the new spending authority, the federal government on January 15 could partially shut down, as it did for 16 days last October.

Not surprisingly, one of fights ahead involves funding of President Barack Obama's healthcare law, according to Republican and Democratic aides in the House and Senate.

"It's one of many flashpoints," said a House Republican aide who asked not to be identified, adding, "But it's not insurmountable."

Republicans are warning that they will not tolerate any increase in funding for administering the troubled healthcare program.

Democrats hope to maintain or add small amounts of money for the program they say will provide insurance for millions of previously uninsured people.

As is the case with all spending bills in a deeply divided Congress, there are plenty of other disagreements besides the Obamacare funding level.

Among the most difficult will be money for the Internal Revenue Service, the nation's tax collector; funds for western wildfire fighting and for the Yucca Mountain, Nevada, nuclear waste repository.

Separate battles also could be waged over policy proposals that House Republican leaders are likely to attach to the funding bill.

These could include forcing the Obama administration to approve a controversial Keystone oil pipeline from Canada to the U.S. Gulf of Mexico.

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The U.S. Capitol is shown in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 18. The Senate is on track to pass a modest, bipartisan budget pact that is designed to keep Congress from lurching from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis and ease the harshest effects of the automatic budget cuts known as the sequester.

(AP)

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