Obama signs short-term spending bill, averting federal shutdown

Gov. Scott Walker has presented his full budget proposal in a speech to Wisconsin lawmakers. His plan cuts $1.5 billion in aid to public schools and government but avoids any tax or fee increases, furloughs or widespread layoffs. (March 1)
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; 5:44 PM

President Obama on Wednesday signed a stopgap measure that will keep the federal government funded through March 18, averting a shutdown for two more weeks while congressional leaders head to the White House to broker a longer-term deal.

The resolution, which passed the Senate earlier Wednesday 91 to 9, will cut $4 billion in spending by targeting programs that Obama has already marked for elimination and reductions. That's far less than House Republicans had wanted to cut, but with the clock ticking and public opinion sharply divided, GOP leaders were willing to make concessions.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) announced after the vote Wednesday that the White House had invited leaders of both parties to meet with Vice President Biden to come up with a plan that would continue federal funding through the remainder of the fiscal year. The talks could begin this week, a Senate Democratic leadership aide said.

Obama said in a statement that he would enlist Biden, White House Chief of Staff William M. Daley and budget director Jacob J. Lew to work with congressional leaders to hash out a long-term agreement.

"I'm pleased that Democrats and Republicans in Congress came together and passed a plan that will cut spending and keep the government running for the next two weeks. But we cannot keep doing business this way," Obama said after the Senate passed the two-week resolution. "Living with the threat of a shutdown every few weeks is not responsible, and it puts our economic progress in jeopardy."

Obama had to sign the stopgap bill by Friday to prevent nonessential federal business from grinding to a halt. But although Congress has bought itself time, lawmakers face enormous challenges as they attempt to tackle the nation's short- and long-term fiscal problems. The two parties are deeply divided over how to close a record gap between federal spending and revenue projected to reach $1.6 trillion this year.

As if to illustrate the gulf, the nine no votes in the Senate on Wednesday represented both ends of the ideological spectrum. The five Republicans - Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), Mike Lee (Utah), Rand Paul (Ky.), James E. Risch (Idaho) and Mike Crapo (Idaho) - are staunch conservatives; Lee and Paul were elected in November with strong tea party support. They don't think the Senate bill cuts nearly enough.

Lee, a freshman and founding member of the Senate Tea Party Caucus, called the two-week bill "a disappointing failure on the part of both parties to seriously address the economic meltdown we face from our massive deficit and growing national debt."

Meanwhile, the four members of the Democratic caucus who voted no - Tom Harkin (Iowa), Carl Levin (Mich.), Patty Murray (Wash.) and independent Bernard Sanders (Vt.) - reside on the progressive wing and worry about the harm cuts could bring to education and other programs.

The short-term resolution represents a concession that Congress has failed at one of its most basic duties: to establish a fiscal blueprint for the nation. Last year, the Democrat-led body not only didn't pass a budget but also failed to approve a single appropriations bill, marking the current fiscal year as the first in modern U.S. history to begin with no federal spending authority in place.

The resolution now in effect represents the third stopgap spending bill since the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1, 2010. House Republicans passed legislation in late February that would carry the government through the next seven months, but it included $61 billion in spending cuts that Democrats said would cost 700,000 jobs.

"It is hard to believe we've reached that point in Washington where we are going to fund our United States government two weeks at a time," said Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). "Critics may look at us and say certainly the men and women who serve in the House and Senate ought to be able to gather together to sit down like adults, Democrats and Republicans, and really plot the spending and budget for our government."

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