The U.S. Capitol's American flag flies at half-staff to commemorate… (Mark Wilson / Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — No longer interested in shutting down the government, the Republican-led House approved legislation Thursday to keep it running into next year, jettisoning the GOP’s earlier strategy of using the annual federal funding bill as leverage to extract spending cuts.
The House approved the measure, 329 to 91. The Senate, where Democrats hold a narrow majority, is expected to approve it before the Oct. 1 deadline, averting a government shutdown at the start of the new fiscal year.
Although many rank-and-file Republicans wanted steeper budget cuts, cooler political heads prevailed with the vote coming so close to the November election. GOP leaders did not want a rerun of the 2011 showdown that almost brought the government to a standstill.
Rep. Paul D. Ryan, the Republican vice presidential nominee, returned to Capitol Hill for his first appearance since becoming Mitt Romney’s running mate. The Wisconsin congressman, who voted for the legislation, was greeted with applause.
Republican Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, acknowledged that the short-term measure is “not our preferred way of doing it.” But he said the bill “will keep the government’s doors open and its wheels turning.”
The stopgap measure will fund government through March 27 at levels agreed upon during last summer’s debt deal between Congress and the White House.
That deal set spending levels for the upcoming fiscal year, and promised nearly $1.2 trillion in cuts to be made equally across defense and domestic programs over the next decade, beginning Jan. 3, unless a bipartisan supercommittee created last fall could find an alternative. The panel failed.
Now, with the cuts looming, Republicans are leading efforts to halt the Pentagon’s portion. The House passed legislation Thursday that would shift the burden completely onto domestic programs.
Obama has promised to veto that GOP approach, which would slash funding for food stamps, school lunches and other programs to spare defense.
“This reduction would lead to destructive cuts in investments critical to the nation’s economic future, ranging from education to research and development to infrastructure,” the White House said. “The bill also rejects any effort to achieve deficit reduction by asking the most fortunate Americans to pay their fair share.”
Both parties want to avoid steep defense cuts, but they agreed to the deal last year as a way to force negotiations on a broader budget agreement, often called a “grand bargain,” that could involve new revenues when the lower George W. Bush-era tax rates expire in December.
Obama wants to allow those tax rates to expire for income above $250,000 for couples and $200,000 for singles. Romney and congressional Republicans want to keep the Bush-era tax rates for everyone, and Romney wants to lower them an additional another 20%.
The nation’s debt load is about $16 trillion. Analysts say the U.S. bond rating may be lowered if leaders cannot agree on a debt-reduction plan.
The combination of the looming budget cuts and the expiration of the Bush tax rates is the so-called “fiscal cliff,” which is expected to be the top order of business in a lame-duck Congress after the November election.
On Thursday, 70 Republicans voted against the stopgap funding measure, a reminder of the continued difficulty that House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) faces in getting his troops in line on key votes. The bill passed only with the help of Democrats.
In early 2011, Republicans nearly shut down the federal government as the House’s new tea-party inspired majority sought to cut government spending and attach policy positions — including elimination of funds for Planned Parenthood — to the annual spending bill.
Conservatives this week had discussed a last-minute effort to halt foreign aid to Libya and Egypt in the aftermath of the violent attacks on the U.S. diplomatic missions in those countries. But with the rules already set for Thursday’s vote, they had no opportunity to amend the legislation.