Obama signs short-term spending measure that includes some easy cuts

March 17, 2011

Washington has a new drop-dead date.

President Obama signed a new stopgap budget bill on Friday morning, keeping the federal government open until April 8. The measure passed the Senate on Thursday afternoon, and the House earlier in the week.

The bill will cut $6 billion in federal spending. That makes twice this month that lawmakers from both parties have agreed to slash billions from the budget.

Obama signed the bill--the sixth “continuing resolution” passed this fiscal year, as short-term fixes in the absence of a yearlong budget--before he left on a trip to Central and South America. The White House has said Obama wants Republicans and Democrats to stop this approach, and agree on a spending plan to last the rest of the fiscal year.

This measure does not get the two sides any closer to that deal. It just puts three more weeks on the clock.

“Patience is wearing thin on both sides with these stopgaps,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), the Senate’s No. 3 Democrat. “All signs point to this being the last one. Three weeks should be enough to negotiate a final deal.”

Already, however, there are reasons to think it might not be.

For one of those three weeks, Congress will be on recess. And the two sides began their key negotiations Thursday with an argument — over how they should negotiate.

Schumer said that House Republicans should make the next move, by offering a proposal that’s closer to what Democrats will accept.

Republicans said the opposite.

“I again implore the president and Senate Democrats to give us an offer,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) said in a statement. He continued: “We cannot continue to fund the government with a series of band-aids.”

There was one sign of progress: Senate Democratic leaders said that White House staff members and aides to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) held a late-afternoon meeting on Wednesday to talk about the budget.

It is considered the opening round between Democrats — who have tried to use government spending to spur the economy — and tea party-minded Republicans who think that government spending is holding the economy back and that the answer is deep cuts.

Democrats and Republicans alike seem determined to avoid a government shutdown: There is a high risk that the public will view that as incompetence. And, when under deadline pressure, both sides have shown that they can agree on billions in reductions. The last short-term measure, passed this month, cut $4 billion from the budget.

“If you’ve got $10 billion [in cuts] in six weeks, we’ve been over-spending . . . since this took, really, no effort,” said Thomas A. Schatz of the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. Of the cuts, he said, “these are things that they should have been doing all along.”

Among the cuts:

l $1.74 billion from the U.S. Census Bureau. This was money that had been allotted to fund the 2010 Census. Because there won’t be another census until 2020, the money is not needed this year.

l $48 million from an “emergency steel loan” program. This Commerce Department program was established in 1999 to provide loans to steel manufacturers during a time of trouble in the industry.

But the industry recovered, and the program hasn’t made a loan since 2003. In past years, President George W. Bush and Obama requested that the program give back some or all of the millions it had in the bank.

l $19 million from public telecommunications facilities and construction. This program, another arm of the Commerce Department, mainly helped public television stations convert to digital broadcasting.

The conversion was complete in 2009. “There is no further need for [this] program,” according to the president’s 2010 budget. But Congress allotted $20 million anyway.

l $14.8 million from the National Park Service’s Save America’s Treasures program. This began in 1999, to provide grants for restoring historic buildings and collections as part of millennium celebrations.

The program was supposed to last two years.

Last year, the administration proposed shutting it down because the program had “not demonstrated [it contributed] to national historic preservation goals.” The budget said the program lacked “rigorous performance metrics and evaluation efforts, so benefits remain unclear.”

The stopgap measure will eliminate it.

Although no senators spoke on its behalf, the program has been defended by nonprofit parks and preservation groups. Previous grants had gone to restore the Washington National Cathedral and the Star-Spangled Banner flag, now on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

“It’s not like fairies and elves come out at midnight at some of these historical sites,” said Alan Spears at the National Parks Conservation Association. “We need money.”

Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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