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Senate OKs bill to fund gov't until March 4

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Senate approved stopgap legislation to keep the government funded through March 4, setting up a budget fight early next year between the administration and Republicans.

By a 79-16 vote Tuesday, the chamber backed a stripped-down measure that would freeze pay for federal employees, provide $160 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and head off cuts in Pell grants for college tuition.

Excluded from the measure were thousands of proposed pet projects known as earmarks, as well as provisions opposed by the White House that would have prevented a trial on U.S. soil of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, who is being held at the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The vote sends the bill to the House, where lawmakers aim to forward it to President Barack Obama before the expiration tonight of the so-called continuing resolution currently funding federal agencies.

The 36-page bill replaces a $1.2-trillion, 1,924-page "omnibus" spending measure loaded with earmarks that Republicans, under pressure from tea party activists who seek significantly limited government, blocked last week.

The result is that federal agencies will go roughly halfway through their 2011 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, without updated budgets.

The temporary spending measure will make it easier for House Republicans, who have promised to slash spending by $100 billion when they take over the chamber next year, to force Senate Democrats to accept cuts, because legislation will be needed to prevent the government from shutting down.

Democrats wanted a continuing resolution that lasted the duration of the government's 2011 fiscal year, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) didn't have the votes.

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