House likely to avert government shutdown

March 20, 2013

A short-term funding measure to keep the government operating beyond the end of this month cleared the Senate on Wednesday and is awaiting final passage in the House on Thursday to avert a shutddown.

The approval process has been unfolding remarkably smoothly compared with the previous efforts of a divided Congress that has gone to the brink repeatedly over spending issues.

If the House passes the bill before members leave Friday for a two-week recess, funding will be assured almost a week before the resolution keeping the government operating expires on March 27.

The final Senate vote on the short-term continuing resolution, 73 to 26, came days later than leaders had hoped. Passage was slowed by a familiar disagreement about how many amendments the chamber should consider for a bill that outlines spending priorities for every federal agency for the final six months of the fiscal year.

Many were attempts to blunt the impact on specific programs or agencies of the $85 billion across-the-board sequester spending cuts.

The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe explains one way Congress copes with big disagreements over the federal budget. (The Washington Post)

By late last week, senators had filed 126 amendments they wanted to be heard on the floor. Five senators, for instance, offered slightly different versions of proposals to cut off foreign aid to Egypt.

“I love the Senate. And we love to talk. And we love to amend. . . . But we are now at the point where the bill must really come to a close,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the chairman of the appropriations committee responsible for the bill, said as she proposed a procedure on Monday that would help shepherd it to final passage.

Ultimately, the chamber voted on 10 amendments.

One, proposed by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), would have shifted $6 million in park funding to free up money to potentially allow the White House, Yellowstone National Park and the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pa., to reopen to public tours.

It failed on a 45 to 54 vote, with Democrats in opposition.

Another, sponsored by Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), would transfer $55 million in agriculture money to prevent furloughs among food inspectors. A third would require tuition-assistance programs for military service members — which are to be suspended because of the sequester — to be continued.

They both passed.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) wanted an amendment to keep air-traffic controllers on the job — some towers at smaller airports are scheduled to close because of the sequester. He didn’t get a vote.

The amendment tussle aside, the legislation proceeded through both chambers with few hiccups. That’s something of a surprise given that some House Republicans, smarting from the year-end “fiscal cliff” drama, had promised to use the must-pass measure to force concessions from Democrats on deficit reduction, including entitlement reform.

Instead, House Republicans now seem content with a bill that locks in the sequester cuts for the rest of the year. Likewise, Democrats, who want to reverse the sequester, agreed that the short-term bill would leave it in place for now.

They have instead proposed replacing the sequester in part with higher tax revenue but doing so through broader budget negotiations that outline future spending.

Just before the Senate voted on the full bill, Mikulski praised senators for working in a bipartisan fashion to improve on the measure the House had passed. “We didn’t want brinkmanship politics. We didn’t want ultimatum politics,” she said.

To blunt the impact of the sequester, the House introduced new priorities for military spending in its bill. The Senate measure added several other areas, including agriculture, commerce, science, justice and homeland security.

The result is to give more money to certain key programs; all were offset with cuts elsewhere.

The broader budget negotiation process will begin this week with spending blueprints in both chambers.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), who took a rare stroll from the House side of the Capitol to the Senate floor to thank Mikulski for her efforts, said he expected the Senate’s bill to pass the House without difficulty on Thursday.

“It’s the first time in a long time where we had a matter of this magnitude work so smoothly,” he said.

Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.

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