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Congress OKs another stopgap bill to avert shutdown

Growing opposition from the most conservative Republicans is making a long-term solution harder. Next shutdown deadline: 3 weeks.

March 17, 2011|By Lisa Mascaro, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — The Senate overwhelmingly passed another stopgap spending measure to prevent Friday's threatened government shutdown, but increasing conservative opposition is making the task of negotiating a lasting deal deeply complicated for Republican leaders.

Congress now has a three-week reprieve before the country is again at risk of a halt in many government services. Talks continue behind the scenes to reach a long-term budget solution.

The outcome of Thursday's vote paralleled the mood this week in the House, as conservative Republicans voted against the measure in greater numbers. Many Republicans are steadfast in their refusal to support the legislation unless it includes their policy priorities — defunding President Obama's healthcare law, eliminating support for Planned Parenthood and others.

"This is a bad omen," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) before the vote. The resistance from conservatives, he said, makes a long-term deal between leaders more difficult. "An intense ideological tail continues to wag the dog."

The Senate voted 87 to 13 to approve the stopgap measure, funding the government through April 8, while cutting $6 billion. Nine Republicans voted against the bill, up from the five who opposed a previous short-term measure this month. Four Democrats also opposed it, the same number as earlier.

Cuts will continue at $2 billion a week, the level preferred by the GOP but opposed by many Democrats. The legislation was designed to appeal to Democrats by making the reductions in programs and services already identified by Obama for termination.

At the same time, it was not lost on lawmakers that among the cuts was elimination of $17 million for the development group called the International Fund for Ireland — a move occurring on St. Patrick's Day, as Obama and congressional leaders were welcoming the Irish prime minister to an annual lunch.

In supporting the temporary measure, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) argued that, coupled with the reductions in a previously approved stopgap measure, Congress would be cutting $10 billion in five weeks — an unusually swift level of reductions.

"All in all, a good day's work," Kyl said during the debate.

The votes this week have made it increasingly clear that the divisions within the GOP ranks will set the stage for the talks on a long-term solution.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) was able to pass the bill in his chamber this week only with the help of Democratic votes, which Democrats interpret to mean they will have greater influence over the final package.

Republicans have said Democrats and the White House have failed to offer alternative spending plans in negotiations.

With the two sides $50 billion apart, a middle ground could look similar to the estimated $30 billion in cuts Republican leaders first proposed, before their "tea party" activists and freshman rank and file pressed for more. But such a compromise appears far off.

Both sides indicated that once Obama signs the latest measure, the next step is reaching a long-term resolution to fund the government through Sept. 30, the end of the 2011 fiscal year. Neither side wants another stopgap measure.

Republicans leaders acknowledge that the growing dissent within their ranks would make it increasingly difficult to pass another stopgap bill.

Democrats also have said they do not want more temporary proposals, which they said are creating economic uncertainty and leaving federal agencies unable to fill contracts, initiate programs or properly function.

"This is no way to run the country," said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska).

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