WASHINGTON – The House approved a stopgap measure Tuesday to keep money flowing to the federal government for the next two weeks and avert for now a government shutdown as congressional negotiators grapple with deep divisions to reach a more permanent solution.
The Democratic-controlled Senate is expected to consider the measure today. But the temporary fix only underscores the difficulty ahead as President Barack Obama assumes a larger role in trying to settle a congressional stalemate over federal spending for the rest of 2011.
Congress still faces a budget impasse and the risk of a shutdown, and the tension is spilling into other approaching fiscal battles, including Obama’s own 2012 budget proposal.
Meanwhile, on a related issue, the Treasury Department said Tuesday the nation could reach its legal debt limit by April 15, requiring an increase that Republicans, fueled by tea party conservatives, have vowed to resist without further constricting government spending.
“If American families can do with less, there’s no reason why the government can’t do with less,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
The House approved the stopgap measure in a bipartisan vote that reflected the anxiety among both Republicans and Democrats over the possibility of a shutdown. Unlike the 1990s, when Republicans were faulted after the government closed, polls now show that voters would blame both sides for failing to find a way around a disruption.
Democrats abandoned an effort to achieve a longer, 30-day stopgap proposal sought by the White House. Obama, stepping up his involvement, called Boehner on Tuesday morning. White House officials said a succession of short-term fixes would lead to economic uncertainty.
But Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the majority leader, said after meeting late Monday with Boehner that the House speaker had rejected Democrats’ overtures.
“The president’s going to take this to the American people, because the only message we have from the Republicans is to wipe out programs that are so important to people,” Reid said.
In a test of his control over his restive rank-and-file, Boehner was able to keep most Republican members in line for Tuesday’s vote, even though the stopgap measure excludes top GOP priorities such as cutting funds for the new health care law. The House voted 355-91, with six Republicans and 85 Democrats opposed.
Tea party-backed freshmen said they were able to agree to Tuesday’s bill because it allows them to keep their campaign promise to cut spending this year. House Republicans last month passed a 2011 spending bill that cut more than $60 billion mainly from domestic programs, drawing a veto threat from Obama.
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., said she was looking for more opportunities to cut spending when Congress takes up the debt limit this spring. “Right now, the people at home are saying, ‘Please keep cutting,’ ” she said.
But the approach taken in Tuesday’s vote is likely to create additional complications in subsequent negotiations.
To achieve the $4 billion in cost-cutting, Boehner zeroed out funding for many programs and projects for the rest of 2011, but counted all the savings as though they occurred in the two-week period covered by the GOP bill.
Many of the programs being eliminated were among those Obama already had proposed to terminate in his 2012 budget. So while Boehner’s approach met with general Democratic approval, the cuts represent one-time savings opportunities that cannot be duplicated.
About $2.4 billion of the cuts were in eight programs dealing with highways, literacy and other spending identified as duplicative or as one-time grants. Another $1.5 billion is saved by doing away with spending “earmarks” – special expenditures requested by individual lawmakers.
Congress will not be able to continue drawing from this pool of programs to keep the government running much beyond the new March 18 shutdown deadline. Other projects on the list pose greater political difficulties, such as tapping into home heating subsidies.