Senate Democrats look to avoid government shutdown fight

Senate Democrats are preparing to introduce a measure that will keep the government running beyond this month that is designed to avoid contentious political fights, as both parties have informally decided a possible shutdown would do little to aid their side in a broader fight over the debt and deficits.

The House passed a Republican version of the continuing resolution  last week which will provide funding for the government when the current mechanism keeping agencies operating expires March 27. Republicans locked in the across-the-board cuts known as the sequester through the end of the fiscal year, resulting in a measure totaling $982 billion.

US Senator of Maryland Barbara Mikulski speaks to the audience at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina, on September 5, 2012 on the second day of the Democratic National Convention (DNC). The DNC is expected to nominate US President Barack Obama to run for a second term as president on September 6th. AFP PHOTO Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/GettyImages)
 Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) (Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

Senate Appropriations Chairman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said last week that her measure would also keep to sequester funding levels, forgoing a major fight with Republicans. She had said then, however, that she hoped to include language in the measure that would give agency heads broad new authority to shift money from program to program to help manage the impact of the sequester.

However, a Democratic aide said bipartisan negotiators agreed over the weekend to drop that provision in the face of determined Republican opposition in the House, a sign of Democrats' commitment to smooth passage of the measure.

It will likely face Senate votes beginning Wednesday and return to the House for final passage next week, before the start of a two-week congressional recess for the Easter holiday.

Democrats also agreed to skip nearly $1 billion in new funding requested by the Obama administration to help set up health insurance exchanges established under the Affordable Care Act, as well as funding to help implement the 2010 Dodd-Frank banking regulation law. Any Democratic move to include the dollars would have set off a bitter fight with Republicans.

Only a few areas would receive relief from the sequester under the Democrats' bill. In most areas of the government, programmatic priorities in place since the fiscal year began Oct. 1 would simply be continued through the end of the year. The House attached a new appropriations bill for the Defense Department, however. The maneuver would not increase the Pentagon's $518 billion appropriations, but the effect will be to add funding to some accounts that will be especially damaged by sequestration.

The Senate will also include new spending priorities for agriculture, commerce, justice and science, as well as homeland security — all areas negotiated in advance with Republicans in the House and Senate. And the Senate will propose $100 million in new funding for Head Start and the National Institutes of Health, as well as $200 million in spending on transportation. Those dollars will be offset by cuts elsewhere.

The decision to skip a fight on the measure keeping government running means more attention can be focused on Washington's real fiscal fight: competing budgets that will be unveiled this week in the House and Senate.

Unlike the continuing resolution, which writes spending priorities through the end of the year into statute, the budgets will be nonbinding. But because they lay out spending and taxing priorities for decades to come, they will serve as key guideposts for how the party's propose to tackle the nation's growing debt.

Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.
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