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Senate sends Obama stopgap GOP spending bill

By ANDREW TAYLOR
The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; 3:40 PM

WASHINGTON -- The Senate on Wednesday sent President Barack Obama a Republican-drafted stopgap funding bill that trims $4 billion from the budget, completing hastily processed legislation designed to keep partisan divisions from forcing a government shutdown.

Moments later, Obama called on congressional leader to meet with top administration figures including Vice President Joe Biden to discuss a longer-term measure to fund the government through Sept. 30.

"We can find common ground on a budget that makes sure we are living within our means," Obama said. "This agreement should be bipartisan, it should be free of any party's social or political agenda, and it should be reached without delay."

The White House said Obama will sign the bill.

Congressional Republicans said it's up to Democrats to offer an alternative to carry into the talks. They have yet to produce one to respond to a $1.2 trillion omnibus spending measure that passed the House last month.

"The House position is perfectly clear. We cut $100 billion off the president's request for this fiscal year," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "We have no clue where our colleagues on the Senate side are."

The Senate cleared the temporary measure by an overwhelming 91-9 vote that gives the GOP an early but modest victory in its drive to rein in government. Obama has until Friday to sign the measure and keep federal offices open and operations intact. The House passed the legislation on Tuesday.

The measure buys time for Obama, the GOP-dominated House and the Democratic-led Senate to start talks on legislation to fund the government through the end of September.

House Republicans last month muscled through a measure cutting this year's budget by more than $60 billion from last year's levels - and $100 billion from Obama's request - while trying to block implementation of Obama's health care law and a host of environmental regulations. The White House has promised a veto and it will take weeks or months to negotiate a compromise funding measure that Obama would sign.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said in testimony Wednesday that the House GOP spending cuts plan would reduce economic growth by as much as two-tenths of a percentage point and hurt job growth.

"That would translate into a couple hundred thousand jobs," Bernanke said. "It is not trivial."

The $4 billion in savings comes from some of the easiest spending cuts for Congress to make, hitting accounts that Obama already has proposed eliminating and reaping some of the money saved by earlier moves by Republicans to ban lawmakers from "earmarking" pet projects for their districts and states.

At issue are the operating budgets of every federal agency, including the Pentagon, where Defense Secretary Robert Gates is increasingly anxious for a full-year funding bill. "Discretionary spending" represents about a third of the overall $3.8 trillion federal budget.

"Our priorities are twofold. One, keep the government running so essential services don't get interrupted," said Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "Equally important, we need to lay the groundwork with a budget that keeps what works and cuts what doesn't."

Some Republicans were restive that the bill didn't cut further.

"While some have been patting themselves on the back for proposing $4 billion in so-called `cuts,' in reality, this bill fully funds billions upon billions of dollars in wasteful, duplicative programs that should be eliminated, reduced, or reformed," said freshman GOP Sen. Mike Lee of Utah.

But other Republicans seized on the vote as setting a precedent for cuts of $2 billion a week - which, if extended through the end of the budget year, would match the $61 billion in cuts in a measure passed by the House last month to meet their promise of cutting federal agency operating budgets back to levels in place before Obama took office.

"It's hard to believe when we're spending $1.6 trillion more than we're taking in a single year, that it would take this long to cut a penny in spending, but it's progress nonetheless," said Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "It's encouraging that the White House and congressional Democrats now agree that the status quo won't work, that the bills we pass must include spending reductions."

The White House has promised a veto of the bigger GOP measure, citing crippling cuts to many federal agencies and studies by economists that predict the spending cuts would harm the economy.

The GOP won control of the House and gained seats in the Senate last fall with the backing of tea party activists demanding deep, immediate cuts in federal spending. They say that an early down payment on those cuts would send a confidence-building signal to financial markets and the business community.

Still, difficult negotiations loom between House Republicans, Senate Democrats and the White House over the full-year spending measure. It blends cuts across hundreds of programs - education, the environment, homeland security and the IRS among them - with a slew of provisions that attack clean air and clean water regulations, family planning and other initiatives.

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