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Panel passes measure to keep government operating

WASHINGTON — A House-Senate panel on Thursday approved legislation to keep the government from closing down when the new budget year starts next week and employed a $4 billion bookkeeping maneuver to keep the financially troubled Postal Service afloat.

The one-month stopgap spending measure is needed because Congress has failed to complete work on any of the 12 annual spending bills for agency budgets that it passes each year.

The legislation was attached to a $4.7 billion measure funding the budget for Congress beginning Oct. 1. The House-Senate meeting was officially called to wrap up negotiations on that bill. But the meeting was dominated by discussion of other matters, including the decision to attach the stopgap measure, which is known as a continuing resolution, or a CR.

Republicans also sought to attach provisions to keep open the Guantanamo Bay detention center and cut off funding for ACORN.

The combined measure is slated for a House floor vote tomorrow.

The financially struggling Postal Service would be allowed to cover a budget shortfall by reducing its annual payment to a health care fund for retirees by $4 billion. Under current law, the Postal Service is required to transfer $5.4 billion to the Retiree Health Benefits Fund by Sept. 30, but Postal officials say they don't have enough money to make the payment.

The measure would also extend the federal highway program for one month. Congress is working on a three-month extension.

Given the controversy swirling about ACORN, officially the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, Democrats inserted language saying the group could not receive funding under the stopgap measure or any prior legislation.

House Republicans tried to add language to block President Barack Obama's order to close Guantanamo down, deny all funding to ACORN, and block any possible release of U.S. abuse of combatant detainees. Each attempt was blocked on a party-line vote by House Democrats who argued the provisions didn't belong in the measure and in most cases will be addressed on later bills.

"There ain't going to be more money ... for ACORN," promised House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis.

The stopgap funding measure would extend funding for the operating budgets of Cabinet departments and other agencies at current levels through Oct. 31. Exceptions would be made for the Census Bureau, which gets a big infusion to prepare for next year's count, and politically sacrosanct veterans medical programs, both of which would operate at increases 2010 levels.

Several other spending bills, including measures funding the departments of Agriculture, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs are in House-Senate talks. But an impasse has developed. The House is insisting that any money "earmarked" for a for-profit entity be subject to a competitive bidding process. The Senate is refusing to go along, saying recent reforms of the earmarking process are sufficient.