House approves funds to keep federal government open

September 29, 2011

In a near-empty chamber, the House on Thursday approved by voice vote a four-day extension of government funding, keeping federal agencies open through next Tuesday. By then, the full House will have returned to legislative session to take up a longer-term plan that would keep the government running until Nov. 18.

That seven-week plan, which represents a 1.5 percent cut from 2011 spending rates, was approved Monday by the Senate and gives Congress an extra seven weeks to work out the line-by-line details of the entire 2012 budget.

Thursday’s unusual action came in the middle of a recess week in which most lawmakers are home in their congressional districts. But the House had to approve the four-day measure to prevent the federal government from running out of funding when the fiscal year ends Friday night.

Just three lawmakers were on hand to approve the short-term plan: Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), a freshman from the nearby 1st Congressional District, who sat in the speaker’s chair; Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), who made the motions to approve the bill; and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the Montgomery County Democrat who was on hand to assure that Republicans didn’t try to pull any tricks.

There was a slight bit of tension the air as GOP leadership staff feared one of the two dozen or so most conservative Republicans might appear to object to the voice vote. Any lawmaker could have objected to the unanimous approval of the four-day bill. That would have either required that House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) call the chamber into session Friday or that the government partially shut down over the weekend.

The conservatives want steeper reductions than the agreed-upon cut of 1.5 percent to agency budgets, a $7 billion decrease from this year’s outline. But in the end they decided to put off their fight until the vote next week and in the detailed spending plans that emerge over the next seven weeks.

The session, which lasted five minutes, was a stark contrast to last week’s votes on stopgap funding bills. When Democrats deserted him over a fight on how to fund disaster relief programs, Boehner lost a key vote last Wednesday amid a conservative rebellion on his right flank. He spent the next 30 hours cajoling enough Republicans to approve the plan on a do-over vote early Friday morning.

The Senate had its own stalemate on the vote, but then reached a compromise after the Federal Emergency Management Agency declared that it had enough funds to make it through Friday, the end of the fiscal year. That negated the need for spending cuts that Republicans had sought to offset the funding. The Senate approved a new plan Monday that came in with the GOP spending levels for FEMA but without the offsetting cuts.

Van Hollen, whose district includes tens of thousands of federal workers, said he remained optimistic that Congress can approve the full-year budget this fall in a calmer fashion. “I’m very hopeful things will go much more smoothly,” he said.

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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