WASHINGTON – Republicans pushed legislation through the House on Wednesday to prevent a government shutdown this month while easing the short-term impact of $85 billion in spending cuts – at the same time previewing a longer-term plan to erase federal deficits without raising taxes.
President Barack Obama pursued a different path as the GOP asserted its budget priorities. He hosted a dinner with a dozen Republican senators at a hotel near the White House in search of bipartisan support for a deficit-cutting approach that includes the higher taxes he seeks as well as savings from Medicare and other benefit programs that they stress. The Republican leaders of the House and Senate did not participate.
Any such compromise talks were unlikely to yield fruit for months, if then, although Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the author of the House Republican budget plan, expressed hope that some progress across party lines might be possible later in the year.
“I think this whole thing will come to a crescendo this summer, and we’re going to have to talk to each other to get an agreement about how to delay a debt crisis, how to save this country from a fiscal train wreck that’s coming,” said Ryan, who was the Republicans’ vice presidential candidate last year. He added that he had spoken with Obama in recent days, but he declined to provide details.
For now, the divided government’s immediate objectives are to prevent a shutdown of federal agencies on March 27, at the same time lawmakers and the White House look for ways to ease the impact of across-the-board spending cuts that kicked in less than a week ago.
The legislation that cleared the House on a bipartisan vote of 267-151 would do both, ensuring funding through the Sept. 30 end of the budget year while granting the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs greater flexibility in implementing their share of short-term spending cuts.
“This is all about whether or not we shut down the government. This is a bill to keep the government operating,” said Rep. Hal Rogers, the Kentucky Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.
Minority Democrats appeared torn between a desire to support legislation to keep the government open and their goal of replacing at least half of the spending cuts with provisions to increase revenue.
“Instead of closing tax loopholes for corporate jets, they want to cut 4 million meals on wheels,” the party’s House leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, said of Republicans.
The bill passed with the support of 53 Democrats, more than a quarter of those voting.
It now goes to the Senate, where Democrats and the White House are deep in negotiations with Republicans on changes that would give the Department of Homeland Security and other domestic agencies the same type of flexibility in administering the spending cuts that the Pentagon would receive.
Obama had a good exchange of ideas with lawmakers, a White House official said after the dinner. Sen. John McCain, who was among Obama’s guests, told a reporter that the meal went “just fine.”
The spending legislation was still pending on the House floor when Ryan began pulling back the curtain on his plan to eliminate deficits in 10 years. The government ran a deficit of more than $1 trillion for the past budget year, about $200 billion less than the year before, and the total federal debt is about $16 trillion.