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Congress, Obama brace for showdown as government shutdown looms

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2011; 12:21 AM

The prospect of a government shutdown appeared more possible Saturday after the House passed a budget measure in the pre-dawn hours that cuts $61 billion - and was immediately rejected by Senate Democrats and President Obama.

The House plan, which was approved on a party-line vote at 4:40 a.m. after five days of debate, eliminates dozens of programs and offices while slashing agency budgets by as much as 40 percent. Federal funding for AmeriCorps and PBS would cease. Hundreds of millions would be cut from border security, and tens of millions would be withheld from funding for the District of Columbia.

The debate over the size and scope of the government now moves to the Senate, where leaders have already said that the House plan cuts way too deep and that they are planning a far more modest proposal. But with the Senate out of session all next week, senators have left themselves just a few days to take up a bill before March 4, when the stop-gap measure that is currently funding the government expires.

Given the tight time frame, it's unlikely the two chambers can agree on a compromise. If they don't, the government will either shut down or congressional leaders will have to agree on another temporary measure, perhaps for as little as a couple of weeks.

But even that could be difficult. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has said he won't approve another extension unless it also includes significant cuts. And it's unclear whether the scores of Republican freshmen who were elected last fall on their promise to dramatically downsize the federal government will agree to any sort of deal, particularly after insisting on the deep cuts agreed to Saturday.

"Nobody really knows where this is going from here," said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), who helped craft the $61 billion in cuts as a member of the Appropriations Committee.

For Boehner, Saturday's vote marked an early political victory, allowing his party to honor a 2010 campaign pledge to trim spending to 2008 levels.

"It's democracy in action," Boehner said in an impromptu, triumphal news conference off the House floor just past 9 p.m. Friday, when it was clear the bill would pass. "I'm proud of this vote," he added.

The bigger victors were the 87 Republican freshmen, whose dismissal of an earlier plan that would have cut about $35 billion led House leaders to quickly draw up the larger package of cuts.

Unshackled by Boehner's commitment to a freewheeling process, the freshmen dominated the floor Friday and Saturday morning in passing amendments that moved the legislation further to the right, limiting the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to enforce clean-air standards and defunding the Consumer Product Safety Commission's ability to create a database of injuries.

All of the Republican freshmen supported the final legislation, including a couple of dozen from Midwestern states whose capitals are under siege from public worker unions protesting proposed cuts at the state level.

"We are committed to changing the status quo in Washington and restoring our fiscal stability," Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), a leader of the 2010 class, said after the vote.

What Boehner gained in credibility with the freshmen, though, he lost in terms of bipartisan outreach. Democrats, happy to be allowed to have votes on dozens of their own amendments, still unanimously rejected the final legislation. The final vote was 235 to 189; Republicans alone favored dramatic spending cuts, and three GOP representatives - two of whom thought the cuts didn't go deep enough - joined 186 Democrats in opposing the bill.

In an effort to appear frugal in their own right, Senate Democrats say they plan to cut $41 billion. But that is based on Obama's 2011 budget proposal, which was never enacted. In real-world terms, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid's budget would keep spending at current levels.

House leaders used this same math to claim that their $61 billion in cuts was equivalent to $100 billion, the amount Republicans pledged in their campaigns last fall.

Either way the numbers are counted, the two sides remain more than $60 billion apart.

"Democrats are demonstrating a good faith effort to reduce the deficit and prevent a government shutdown," Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement Saturday.

But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) immediately rejected Reid's approach, saying cuts had to be made to deal with an annual federal deficit predicted to hit $1.6 trillion this year.

"Americans have been clear: Freezing in place the current unsustainable spending levels is simply unacceptable," McConnell said.

If enacted as is, the GOP plan would eliminate numerous programs, including the Corporation for National and Community Service, which runs the AmeriCorps program, and it would terminate federal funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It would cut $600 million from border security and immigration programs. It would eliminate nearly $80 million for the District and slash funding for the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay.

On Friday and Saturday, Republicans approved measures that would provide narrow savings but impose sharp policy prescriptions, including the abolition of any federal funding going to Planned Parenthood and the restriction of any funds going toward the implementation of Obama's health-care law.

"They are so out of touch with reality, it's breathtaking," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the environment committee, said in an interview Saturday, noting the $2 billion cut in the EPA's ability to monitor clean air. "The public would not stand for this in the light of day. If you want to repeal a law, let's introduce a bill to repeal the Clean Air Act and let's have at it."

This debate is the first of several showdowns between the House and Senate, which could culminate later this spring when the federal debt limit must be raised or else the government will begin defaulting on its loans. Republicans have said they won't extend the limit without major budgetary reforms.

"It's going to be fascinating here over the next few weeks and months as we work our way through this," Boehner said. "But these are going to be the most important two, three, four months that we have seen in this town in decades. It's all one fight."

Some lawmakers are hopeful that McConnell's renewed friendship with the White House, particularly his former Senate colleague, Vice President Biden, could pave the way for a deal similar to the one struck in December that led to large bipartisan votes for a tax-cut package. Last week, while backing his House GOP colleagues, McConnell signaled a desire for another round of private talks similar to those that he and Biden held in December that led to the tax deal.

"Can I foresee a situation in which both sides have to bring votes to the table? Yes," said House Minority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). However, Hoyer quickly noted that the December deal came before the freshmen were sworn into the House. "It's different players, and the new crowd demonstrated to their leaders this week that they were focused first on their promises," he said, adding, "A lot of them don't know the ramifications in their own communities of what they're doing."

Boehner reveled Friday night in both the impending victory and the unusually open process that stretched through most of the week, allowing hundreds of amendments to be proposed and more than 100 of them to receive votes. He took a victory lap through the lobby off the chamber floor and engaged reporters in an unplanned 25-minute question-and-answer session, contending that the wide-open process produced a "real debate" that stood in stark contrast to "watching 20 years of leaders tighten down the process, tighten down the process, tighten down the process."

"This is diving off the 50-foot diving board on your first dive," he said.

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