March 17, 2011 / 5:12 AM / 6 years ago

Congress buys more time for budget dispute

<p>Speaker of the House John Boehner speaks to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington February 10, 2011.Joshua Roberts</p>

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Congress on Thursday bought itself more time to work out a much-delayed budget deal as the costs of the stalemate were increasingly felt across the globe.

By a vote of 87 to 13, the Democratic-controlled Senate passed a sixth stopgap bill to keep the government running through April 8, more than six months after the fiscal year began.

The House of Representatives, controlled by Republicans, passed the measure on Tuesday.

The two parties now have three weeks to resolve a $50 billion gap between their rival spending plans. While Republicans are eager to keep a campaign promise to scale back the size of government, Democrats worry that sharp cuts would imperil a shaky U.S. economic recovery.

Lawmakers have extended last year's budget to ensure that government agencies continued to function during the standoff. That approach has made it difficult for government agencies to shift money where it is most needed, leading to layoffs, delayed construction projects and reduced scientific research.

"Continuing to fund our government in two or three week increments adds uncertainty to our economy and distracts us from other urgent priorities facing our nation," White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a prepared statement.

With passage of the latest stopgap measure, Republicans have managed to trim $10 billion from the budget, mostly in noncontroversial areas backed by President Barack Obama.

Senator Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Budget Committee, said that the cuts achieved during the stopgaps put Congress on pace to achieve the $61 billion in immediate cuts outlined by a Republican plan that has passed the House.

With budget deficits hovering around 10 percent of GDP in recent years, Sessions said Congress needed to show bond markets that the United States could get its rapidly growing debt under control.

"If we fail to do something significant I think it would send the wrong message around the world," Sessions said.

TEA PARTY OPPOSITION

But further cuts will encounter greater resistance from Democrats.

Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye, who oversees spending as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said domestic agencies would effectively be operating at a level 10 percent below last year when inflation and other rising costs, such as employee benefits, were taken into account.

"How much more of this spending can we really afford to cut before we are required to lay off food inspectors and shut down meat plants? How much more can we cut before we have no funds to pay employees to monitor our borders and ports?" Inouye said on the Senate floor.

After months of fiery rhetoric, congressional leaders and the White House suggest they are making progress toward a bipartisan funding plan. Many lawmakers are growing increasingly impatient with the standoff and have said they will not support another temporary extension.

House Speaker John Boehner needed Democratic support to pass the stopgap bill on Tuesday after 54 conservative Republicans refused to support it because it did not go far enough. He may need to bring Democrats to the table to pass a final bill also.

Conservatives aligned to the populist Tea Party movement have said they will oppose a final plan if it did not include provisions to block funds for the administration's healthcare overhaul, a measure Obama would be sure to veto.

"We will have a hard time coming to an agreement if those on the hard right treat the budget as an opportunity to enact a far-ranging agenda," said Senator Charles Schumer, a top Democrat.

The House later voted 228 to 192 to deny government funding to National Public Radio, which drew further conservative ire in the wake of an Internet video that showed a top NPR official disparaging Tea Party activists and questioning whether the broadcaster needed its government funding.

Republicans often accuse NPR of having a liberal bias.

Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Paul Simao

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