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Obama signs short-term spending bill, averting federal shutdown

By Shailagh Murray, Felicia Sonmez and Lori Montgomery
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."

For Republicans, especially the 87 freshmen in the GOP-led House, the debate over current spending levels was an opportunity to begin delivering on a campaign promise to shrink the federal government. But the GOP is targeting only domestic discretionary spending - less than a fifth of the overall budget - and their its cuts would barely dent the deficit, much less begin to pay down the national debt, which is $14 trillion and climbing.

Nor does the current debate begin to address another fundamental problem, the fact that a budget process designed to establish priorities, cut what doesn't work and restructure federal programs to operate with maximum efficiency has devolved into one of the most partisan rituals on Capitol Hill.

"We need something new, and everyone recognizes it, but all of it is caught up in a political contest between Democrats and Republicans," said Kevin Hassett, director of economic policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

Congress established a federal budget process in the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, a law spearheaded by Republicans who were worried about rising government expenditures. The act established the modern-day Office of Management and Budget to help the president craft an annual fiscal blueprint and launched what became the Government Accountability Office, an independent arm of Congress that monitors how federal money is spent.

But over time, Congress came to believe it had given away too much of its authority to the White House. The Constitution gave Congress the power of the purse, but by the early 1970s, President Richard M. Nixon was making regular use of a practice known as impoundment, refusing to spend money appropriated by Congress as a way of terminating programs he didn't like.

Congress responded with the 1974 Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act, which established the House and Senate budget committees and set forth many of the rules that govern the process today. One of the signal reforms was the creation of the congressional budget resolution, a spending blueprint that binds lawmakers to restrain spending and raise revenues, either to produce a balanced budget or to hit a deficit target.

Even that process has broken down badly: Congress has passed a budget resolution in an election year only once in the past decade, in 2008.

In the House, Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has vowed to tackle the big drivers of future deficits, such as Medicare and Medicaid. But Ryan has expressed reluctance to propose reforms to Social Security, which is already running short of cash. And his caucus, though eager to wipe out deficit spending, is also adamantly opposed to raising taxes, leaving Ryan with a task that is almost impossible to accomplish mathematically.

Without a budget to impose discipline, the House and Senate appropriation committees could face considerable difficulty finding agreement on spending bills, the exact problem that created the current situation. House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) has vowed to pass all 12 fiscal 2012 spending bills in regular order, before Congress leaves in the fall.

"It is high time we start looking forward instead of constantly looking back to clean up past mistakes and inaction," Rogers said on the House floor. "We must move forward quickly in regular order, passing bills on time in an open and transparent fashion to avoid these budget uncertainties in the future."

Staff writer Perry Bacon Jr. also contributed to this story.

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