Government shutdown avoided for now, with a two-week funding extension

Federal employees and contractors at L'Enfant Plaza and Federal Triangle express their opinions and perspectives on the potential government shutdown.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; 12:00 AM

House and Senate leaders on Tuesday bought themselves a little more time in their efforts to avoid a government shutdown, agreeing to a two-week funding extension that also includes $4 billion in spending cuts.

The deal, which eliminates dozens of earmarks and a handful of little-known programs that President Obama has identified as unnecessary, sailed through the House on a 335 to 91 vote. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who initially resisted including any cuts in a short-term funding extension, predicted that it will pass that chamber as early as Wednesday.

Obama also got involved, after largely staying on the sidelines. He placed a 10-minute call to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to discuss the temporary spending bill.

If the Senate approves the measure, the two parties will have until March 18 before the government runs out of money. Both parties know there is a limit to the short-term reprieves they can come up with, however. Ultimately, they must find common ground on a longer-term spending plan that will keep the government in business through the end of the fiscal year, on Sept. 30.

The House passed a measure last month that would reduce spending by $61 billion over the seven months left in this fiscal year. The Democrats who control the Senate say those cuts are far too steep and would endanger both the economic recovery and a host of vital programs. Obama has said he would veto the bill.

The scramble to pass the two-week extension underscored a reality that belies the bellicose talk surrounding the prospect of a shutdown: Leaders of both parties are desperate to avoid one - in no small part because they recognize that both sides would probably come out losers.

This would not be an exact reprise of the back-to-back shutdowns of 1995 and 1996, which saw parks and monuments closed, veterans benefits stopped, passport offices shuttered and hundreds of thousands of federal workers furloughed for a total of 26 days.

Republicans bore the brunt of the blame that time. A Washington Post poll released this week suggested that this time, voters would apportion fault about equally to both parties.

What has changed? The state of the economy is far more precarious than it was in the mid-1990s, the deficit is 10 times as large, and the public's confidence in elected officials is even lower.

Both sides also recognize that they are not on particularly strong political footing.

Republicans, who only recently returned to power in the House, understand that their mandate is fragile - and that it is not to bring the roof down.

"The American people's priorities are clear," said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel. "They want to keep the government open, and they want to cut spending."

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