Congress on course to avert a shutdown

By Lori Montgomery and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 27, 2011; 6:27 PM

The threat of a government shutdown receded Friday, as Senate Democrats tentatively embraced a Republican plan to immediately cut $4 billion in federal spending by targeting programs that President Obama has already marked for elimination.

The GOP proposal, unveiled late Friday by House leaders, would keep the government running only until March 18 - two weeks past the current March 4 deadline - a shorter extension than Democrats are seeking. But by offering a stopgap measure that cuts only programs Obama has identified as unnecessary, Republicans appear to have broken an impasse over spending that has been brewing since they took control of the House this year.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who engineered the legislation in concert with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), said there is now a "clear path" to averting a government shutdown on Friday. "By supporting the House bill, our friends on the other side of the aisle will have the chance to ensure that the government remains operational while we work with them to identify additional ways to shrink Washington spending this year," McConnell said.

While Senate Democrats said they would continue to press for a longer extension, they acknowledged that there was no longer a disagreement over the cuts.

"We are encouraged to hear that Republicans are abandoning their demands for extreme measures like cuts to border security, cancer research and food safety inspectors and instead moving closer to Democrats' position that we should cut government spending in a smart, responsible way that targets waste and excess while keeping our economy growing," Jon Summers, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said in a statement.

Lawmakers remain sharply divided over how to fund the government through Sept. 30, with Republicans demanding unprecedented reductions in domestic spending to trim a budget deficit projected to hit a record $1.6 trillion this year. Last week, in response to public anxiety over deficit spending, the House approved a plan to cut a total of $61 billion from virtually every federal agency over the next seven months.

Democrats reject cuts of that magnitude, arguing this would cripple critical public services, wipe out hundreds of thousands of jobs and short-circuit the economic recovery. The Democrats' case was bolstered this week by a Goldman Sachs analysis that predicted the GOP bill would reduce economic growth later this year by as much as 2 percentage points.

Both parties agree, however, that letting the standoff shut down the government would be an unpopular move.

"They feared a government shutdown," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said of congressional Republicans, "and so they are adopting some of our suggestions on what to cut."

A Gallup poll released Thursday suggests the public is closely divided on the question of which party is doing a better job in the effort to come to an agreement on spending, with 42 percent giving the edge to Republicans and 39 percent to Democrats. Fully 60 percent of the respondents say they want to see a compromise to avert a shutdown, even if it means passing a budget they disagree with.

The spending bill proposed Friday by House leaders would permit federal agencies to continue operating at current funding levels, except for eight programs that were marked for deep cuts or termination in the budget request Obama delivered to Capitol Hill this month.

The cuts include $30 million for the upkeep of the Smithsonian Institution's historic Arts and Industries Building, a fund deemed unnecessary because private contributions have covered those needs. An additional $29 million would be saved by eliminating an Agriculture Department program that helps farmers get access to high-speed Internet service. Republicans said this program has been littered with "abuses" and duplicates efforts elsewhere in the government.

The Education Department would lose $468 million for four programs deemed duplicative or ineffective, including the Even Start family literacy program and the Striving Readers program for middle and high school students, which has a large amount of unused funds. Meanwhile, the Federal Highway Administration would lose $650 million from a one-time program for the states that Obama was not seeking to renew in 2012.

In addition to those cuts, the House bill would revoke $2.7 billion that Congress dedicated last year to more than 50 local initiatives known as "earmarks," individual line items sponsored by a single lawmaker. Obama and Republicans have since renounced earmarking as a practice rife with abuse and wasteful spending, making the programs easy targets.

While the bill seemed to find favor Friday among Senate Democrats, its first test will come Tuesday in the House, when Republican leaders plan to open debate on the measure. Senior Republicans said they expect to have little trouble garnering votes for the bill, though it is far less ambitious than the legislation the House approved last week under pressure from conservatives. Earlier this week, Republican leaders held a conference call with the 87 freshmen who propelled the GOP into the majority to keep them apprised of developments and shore up their support.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), whose staff drafted the measure, called it "a symbol of our continued commitment to getting our nation's fiscal house in order."

If the bill clears the House, it would then move to the Senate. Senate Democrats initially rejected the two-week measure as a "rehash" that would simply seek to enact the $61 billion in spending cuts over a shorter period. Their objections softened when it became clear that House Republicans were dropping the most objectionable cuts.

Meanwhile, McConnell, who worked closely with Boehner on GOP strategy over the past two weeks, assured Boehner's team that Democratic opposition was almost irrelevant. In the closely divided Senate, Republicans would have the votes to block any attempt by Democrats to change the House proposal. The House bill would be left as the only legislative vehicle for funding the government as the clock ticked toward midnight Friday. That would force Democrats either to vote to approve the House measure or to accept blame for closing down the government.

Whatever happens next week, Republicans pledge to continue waging their battle to reduce the size of government.

"Democrats during this debate have said Republican cuts are draconian," Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) told reporters Friday. "But it's clear that the only thing that's draconian is the idea of defending the status quo in Washington."

Staff writer Karen Tumulty and polling manager Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company