Congress avoids shutdown, turns to 2014
Measure now goes to Obama
Capitol Hill lawmakers finally brought the 2013 budget fight to an end Thursday by approving a bill that ended the threat of a government shutdown -- minutes before ratcheting up the partisan warfare over taxes and spending in 2014.
Members of the House voted 318-109 to send President Barack Obama a bill funding the government through the end of the current fiscal year in September while easing the pain of $85 billion in forced spending cuts disliked by leaders on both sides of the aisle.
The measure extending current federal funding authority was needed to avoid a partial shutdown of the government on March 27. Both houses of Congress are scheduled to be on break over the next two weeks for the Easter and Passover holidays.
Don't expect much of a breather, however, in the bitter budget battles that have become one of the hallmarks of a sharply polarized, borderline dysfunctional national legislature. The GOP-controlled House also passed a fiscal year 2014 budget Thursday that is guaranteed to go nowhere in the Democratic-run Senate.
The Republican plan, crafted by recent Mitt Romney running mate Rep. Paul Ryan, cuts taxes while balancing the budget over 10 years by slashing spending by $4.6 trillion, repealing Obama's health care law and making major changes to Medicare. No House Democrats voted for it.
The Senate voted Thursday on the Ryan budget in what appeared to be a political move to show it could not pass. It failed, with 59 senators voting against it and 40 voting in favor.
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called the Ryan budget a "bold plan" and a statement of party principles. Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, a member of the Democratic leadership, called it an "uncompromising ideological approach" that would replicate disastrous European austerity policies.
Not to be outdone, the Democratic-controlled Senate continued its work Thursday on a 2014 budget that cuts the deficit in part by hiking taxes on the wealthy and corporations by $975 billion over the next decade. Republicans note taxes already went up at the start of 2013 as part of the fiscal cliff deal. GOP leaders insist they won't raise the overall tax burden another dime.
Democrats are "serving the needs of government instead of the needs of those who elected them," declared Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.
As for the rest of the current fiscal year, the measure now set to become law reduces the impact of the $85 billion in forced cuts -- called sequestration -- by establishing stop-gap budgets for the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, and Veterans Affairs, among other things.
By crafting new budgets for targeted departments and programs, the package resets priorities and helps better manage the draconian formula of the spending cuts.
Crafted primarily by Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, the measure largely spares a number of politically sensitive programs from the budget ax, including meat inspection and infant nutrition.
Overall, the legislation locks in $984 billion in non-entitlement program spending -- a notable drop from the $1.043 trillion initially approved before the forced sequestration cuts took effect.
Despite the bill's bipartisan nature, many members on both sides of the aisle remain unhappy with the outcome.
Conservatives argue the package is still loaded with pork barrel spending. Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, for example, questioned the inclusion of $65 million for Pacific coast salmon restoration.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, complained Wednesday about being denied a vote on an amendment to protect rural airport control towers from closure due to the cuts. He accused opponents of stripping critical funds simply to score political points and frame the debate in a way that favors defenders of a larger government.
It's "the only explanation I ever get that has any semblance of truth," Moran said on the Senate floor. "By denying the amendment's passage, we prove that sequestration can't work, that we can't cut money from budgets."
More liberal members of Congress blasted the cuts, but said the deal was the only way to avoid a partial government shutdown.
The cuts are "reckless," said Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. But "a government shutdown could wreak havoc on our already fragile economic recovery and must be prevented."
"Whatever our disagreement on some of these bills, it was worse to shut down government," added House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California.
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