Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The House Thursday approved a stopgap spending measure to avoid a shutdown for 11 Cabinet-level departments whose budgets won't be enacted by a midnight Saturday deadline.

The measure would give Congress until Dec. 18 to finish seven incomplete spending measures that were supposed to be wrapped up by Sept. 30. The bill passed by a 247-178 vote and now goes to the Senate, which must pass it this week to avoid a partial shutdown.

The legislation also extends highway programs and federal loan guarantees for larger mortgages.

The anti-shutdown measure was attached to a remarkably generous spending bill for the Interior Department and environmental programs, one that pumps billion of dollars into clean and safe drinking water projects.

The bill rewards Interior and the EPA with increases of $4.7 billion over 2009 levels, an increase of 17 percent. The biggest increases go to EPA grants to state and local governments for sewage treatment projects, wastewater treatment and clean drinking water projects.

There's $5 billion in the measure for such clean water projects, including 333 so-called earmarks sought by lawmakers in both parties, such as $500,000 for Fremont, Ohio to deal with sewer overflows during heavy rains and $400,000 for Washburn, N.D., for improvements to its drinking water treatment plant.

The generosity raised hackles with Republicans, who said the increases are simply unaffordable -- and unsustainable -- given the government's dismal deficit picture.

"The 17 percent increase in this agreement is irresponsible, especially in light of the fact that Congress must soon consider legislation to increase our national debt," said Jerry Lewis of California, top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee. "It is no wonder that Americans across the country are losing confidence in this Congress."

But Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., the chief author of the bill in the House, said that former President George W. Bush had squeezed interior and environmental accounts in his eight years in office. Bush routinely cut back grants to state and local governments that are extremely popular with lawmakers, forcing them to rummage through other accounts to restore the cuts.

"The programs funded through this bill have been chronically underfunded," Dicks said. "This bill invests taxpayers' dollars in our natural resources, and for this investment, all Americans will see great returns."

There's also $475 million to restore the Great Lakes, a seven-fold increase requested by President Barack Obama, as well as lesser amounts to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound, San Francisco Bay, and the Long Island Sound.

But at the same time, Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., used his clout to muscle through a provisions to effectively exempt 13 ships that haul iron ore, coal and other freight on the Great Lakes from a proposed federal rule meant to reduce air pollution.

And Democrats yielded to large agriculture interests by exempting all farms from a proposed EPA greenhouse gas reporting requirement. All but a handful of farmers were ready to be exempted, but an effort to require the very largest livestock operations to report emissions such as methane and carbon dioxide fell apart after a large vote early this week to exempt all operations.

The bill also establishes a $474 million reserve fund for emergency wildfire suppression, gives the National Park Service a 9 percent increase and a 10 percent increase for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The measure is a favorite of lawmakers, in large measure because it contains a raft of so-called earmarks, those back-home goodies they treasure so much. Besides the clean water projects, there's money for land acquisition for parks and wildlife refuges, visitor centers at national parks, and repair of landmarks.

The small, but heavily-earmarked Save America's Treasures program is designed to preserve "irreplaceable" U.S. cultural and heritage resources such as Thomas Edison's lab notes and the bus in which Rosa Parks launched the Birmingham bus boycott. Lawmakers, however, often direct the money to turn old small-town movie houses and county courthouses into community centers.

The measure also includes an unusual provision authored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., aimed at prodding the National Park Service to extend the permit for an oyster farm in the Point Reyes National Seashore. Feinstein was siding with oyster farmer Kevin Lunny in a battle with the agency and local environmentalists who claimed that Lunny's oyster farm was harming seals and doing other damage to the pristine Drakes Estero.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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