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House passes measure to avert government shutdown during budget deadlock

The Senate is expected to consider the measure Wednesday, which pushes the shutdown deadline to March 18. Republicans and Democrats still must come to agreement on budget cuts.

March 01, 2011|By Lisa Mascaro, Washington Bureau
  • House Speaker John Boehner, left, talks at a Republican National Committee media briefing as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor watches.
House Speaker John Boehner, left, talks at a Republican National Committee… (Alex Wong / Getty Images )

Reporting from Washington — The House approved a stopgap measure Tuesday to keep money flowing to the federal government for the next two weeks and avert, for now, a government shutdown as congressional negotiators grapple with deep divisions to reach a more permanent solution.

The Democratic-controlled Senate is expected to pass the measure Wednesday, and President Obama is likely to take on a larger role in trying to break the stalemate over federal spending for the rest of 2011.

The temporary fix underscores the difficulty ahead. House Republicans last month passed a 2011 spending bill that cut more than $60 billion mainly from domestic programs, drawing a veto threat from Obama. The tension is spilling into other approaching fiscal battles, including the president's 2012 budget proposal.

On a related issue, the Treasury Department said Tuesday the nation could reach its legal debt limit by April 15, requiring an increase that Republicans, fueled by "tea party" conservatives, have vowed to resist without further constricting government spending.

"If American families can do with less, there's no reason why the government can't do with less," said House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

The House approved the stopgap measure in a bipartisan vote that reflected the anxiety among Republicans and Democrats over the possibility of a shutdown. Unlike the 1990s, when Republicans were faulted after the government closed, polls show that voters would blame both sides for failing to find a way around a disruption.

Democrats abandoned an effort to achieve a longer, four-week stopgap proposal sought by the White House. Obama, stepping up his involvement, called Boehner on Tuesday. White House officials said a succession of short-term fixes would lead to economic uncertainty.

Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader, said the House speaker had rejected Democrats' overtures. He and Boehner met late Monday.

"The president's going to take this to the American people, because the only message we have from the Republicans is to wipe out programs that are so important to people," Reid said.

In a test of control over his restive rank and file, Boehner was able to keep most Republican members in line for Tuesday's vote, even though the stopgap measure excludes GOP priorities such as cutting funds for the new healthcare law. The House voted 355 to 91, with six Republicans and 85 Democrats opposed.

Tea-party-backed freshmen said they were able to agree to Tuesday's bill because it allowed them to keep their campaign promise to cut spending this year.

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) said she was looking for more opportunities to cut spending when Congress takes up the debt limit this spring. "Right now, the people at home are saying, 'Please keep cutting,' " she said.

But the approach taken in Tuesday's vote is likely to create additional complications.

To achieve the $4 billion in cost-cutting, Boehner zeroed out funding for many programs and projects for the rest of 2011, but counted all the savings as though they occurred in the two-week period covered by the GOP bill.

Many of the programs being eliminated were among more than 200 Obama already had proposed to terminate in his 2012 budget. So while Boehner's approach met with general Democratic approval, the cuts represent one-time savings opportunities that cannot be duplicated.

About $2.4 billion of the cuts were in eight programs dealing with highways, literacy and other spending identified as duplicative or as one-time grants. An additional $1.5 billion is saved by doing away with spending earmarks — special expenditures requested by individual lawmakers.

Congress will not be able to continue drawing from this pool of programs to keep the government running much beyond the new March 18 shutdown deadline.

Other projects on the list pose greater political difficulties, such as tapping into home heating subsidies.

In addition, Obama had planned to use the savings from those cuts to help fund his innovation initiatives. Boehner risks encountering deeper resistance from the White House by seeking to exhaust all of those cuts this year.

Republicans were buoyed by a Government Accountability Office report Tuesday showing vast savings that could be achieved by reducing duplicative government programs.

As the budget impasse continues, conservative Republicans will seek ways to include more of their priorities, amplifying the conflict with Democrats in the Senate.

Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), who wants to defund the healthcare law, said he expected to try again on the forthcoming spending measure.

"We've given the Senate a two-week pass, but no more," Rehberg said. "Enough is enough."

Christi Parsons in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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