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Congress OKs bill to avoid government shutdown

It's a rare show of bipartisanship, but both the left and right find much to complain about, and it isn't likely to last.

November 17, 2011|By Kathleen Hennesssey, Washington Bureau
  • "We showed we knew how to govern, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) said after Congress passed legislation to keep the government running. But not everyone was happy with the spending plan, suggesting that the bipartisanship in this case might be fleeting.
"We showed we knew how to govern, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.)… (Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Washington — Members of Congress have done something some thought was no longer possible: Come together to keep the government operating without waiting until the brink of a shutdown.

The House and Senate passed legislation Thursday designed to keep the government operating past midnight Friday and to fund several agencies for the 2012 fiscal year.

But the 298-121 vote in the House also exposed a schism between its most conservative members and GOP leaders. More than 100 Republicans voted no, a sign that their leadership might have trouble rounding up support for any deficit reduction deal to emerge from the so-called super committee.

The Senate later approved the measure 70 to 30, with 30 Republicans against it and 17 voting yes.

The bill includes funding for agriculture, justice, commerce, housing and science programs through Sept. 30. It essentially holds spending to 2011 levels, as directed by the August deal to raise the nation's debt ceiling.

For the rest of the government, the legislation provides funding through Dec. 16. That suggests the rare bipartisan accomplishment could be fleeting.

Lawmakers have been lurching from deadline to deadline all year, fighting about the budget and the federal deficit. Perhaps because of fatigue from those past battles, or preoccupation with the super committee's talks, lawmakers didn't infuse Thursday's debate with the usual drama involving Republicans demanding deep cuts in domestic programs and Democrats fighting to hold them off.

"We really moved this bill. We showed we knew how to govern," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.). "And if we keep working this way, we're going to get America moving again."

But there were signs of dissent that may signal trouble down the road. Although House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) aimed to highlight the cost-cutting steps in the measure, some House Republicans viewed the deal as falling short of conservative aims to cut the deficit.

The legislation was rejected by 101 Republicans, including many of the chamber's most fiscally conservative members. The bill won more support from Democrats than Republicans.

Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) said he didn't think the bill did enough to cut spending. "I know the leadership has a very difficult challenge," he said. "People like me are not trying to make that job more difficult. But I don't think the [short-term spending bill] represents the kind of almost panic mentality we should be in here with regard to our deficit."

It did not help the GOP cause that Democrats called attention to money they were able to restore in final negotiations between the House and Senate — notably $570 million in money for the Women, Infants and Children Supplemental Nutrition Program.

Democrats had their objections. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said he held the legislation in "minimum high regard."

He faulted the bill for effectively freezing funding for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulates some of the financial instruments that contributed to the Wall Street collapse of 2008.

Some parts of the bill hold strong appeal for Republicans. For example, it does not include $322 million requested by the administration to establish a climate change information center within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The bill also underscores Republicans' continuing dissatisfaction with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-controlled mortgage giants. The legislation reinstates higher loan limits for mortgages backed by the Federal Housing Administration, not for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The higher FHA limits were strongly backed by lawmakers from areas with high real-estate costs.

The legislation also includes a provision designed to protect the privacy of gun owners and dealers. It imposes new restrictions on the Justice Department's handling of certain gun records. It bars the department from consolidating national records of firearms sales, electronically retrieving records from former gun dealers and maintaining information on people who have passed firearm background checks.

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