Democratic senators arrive Thursday for a news conference in the Capitol… (Evan Vucci / Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — Congress approved a $38-billion spending cut package Thursday, sealing a deal to prevent a government shutdown before plunging into an even more far-reaching debate over spending on federal programs and benefits for the years to come.
The Republican-controlled House planned a vote as early as Friday on a 2012 GOP spending blueprint by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), which would slash spending and shrink federal involvement in Medicare and Medicaid. President Obama and congressional Democrats are drawing a sharp contrast with the GOP plan, pointing to key differences over the role and scope of government.
The measure approved Thursday by the House and Senate will fund the government through Sept. 30, the end of the 2011 fiscal year, cutting $38 billion in spending on the environment, healthcare, education, job training and other domestic programs. Despite the steep reductions, the measure drew the ire of the most conservative House members for not going far enough, and exposed divisions among Republicans.
The vote came on the 100th day of House Speaker John A. Boehner's ascent to the top position in that chamber after the GOP's midterm election landslide. But it also showed clearly that the new House leader remains unable or unwilling to keep the restive conservatives in line.
The overall vote was 260-167. Among Republicans, 179 voted for the package and 59 against. As a result, Democratic votes were needed to pass the bill, and 81 of them voted yes.
"There's no cause for a celebration," Boehner said. "This is just one step. And the next step will come tomorrow."
Influential "tea party" activists sent one last warning early Thursday to Republicans, including many of the newly-elected class of 87 freshmen, urging them to vote against what they called an "embarrassing" compromise on the 2011 spending measure.
"While we have helped elect some true conservatives, Washington is still dominated by spending-addicted spineless wimps," said Tea Party Express Chairman Amy Kremer.
Nonetheless, about a two-thirds of the GOP freshmen supported the compromise.
After passage in the House, the measure was quickly passed in the Senate. On separate votes, senators defeated two provisions that would have defunded the nation's new healthcare law and denied federal funds to Planned Parenthood. Those votes were a concession to Republicans to test support and put Democrats on the record as part of the deal worked out last week.
The White House praised the deal, but said "there are tough challenges ahead" that will require similar bipartisan compromise.
Immediately after voting Thursday, House members launched into a debate over their 2012 spending plan, with the cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and other domestic programs. Another crucial financial decision also awaits on an increase in the nation's $14.3-trillion debt ceiling.
Republican leaders expect to extract deep deficit reductions in exchange for their votes to lift the debt limit. GOP leaders appear to have convinced the rank-and-file that these next battles present an even better opportunity to take on rising deficits.
"Wring out the mop this time — and together we continue to make history," said freshman Rep. Jeffrey Landry, a tea party Republican from Louisiana who voted for the 2011 bill Thursday.
Several Republicans from the freshmen class agonized over their votes until the final moments. Complicating decisions was an independent analysis that showed the bill's immediate effect on government spending in 2011 to be minimal.
Much of the $38 billion in reductions would come over time or from standing accounts.
Boehner and other Republican House leaders scrambled to explain the report's finding, hoping to stave off backlash from conservatives who labeled the deal a gimmick.
"A cut is a cut," Boehner said in an unusual last-minute pitch before votes on the House floor.
"Is it perfect?" he said. "No. I'd be the first one to admit that it's flawed. Well, welcome to divided government."
As GOP leaders pressed lawmakers for their support, Democrats decried the deal struck by the White House and Boehner after painstaking negotiations to achieve the nation's largest spending reduction package.
Even with the compromise rolling back the $61 billion in cuts originally sought by Republicans, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), the House Democratic leader, voted no.
The measure digs into domestic programs and services nationwide. Gone for the remainder of 2011 is $600 million for community health centers and $2.9 billion for the development of high-speed rail.
"It's shameful," said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), who has fasted with other lawmakers to protest program cuts for the poor and other Americans. "Budgets are moral documents that reflect who we are as a nation. They're not just about dollars and cents."