| WASHINGTON, March 18
WASHINGTON, March 18 The U.S. Senate on Monday
inched closer to passage of a bill to fund federal agencies
through Sept. 30 and avoid a government shutdown at the end of
this month when existing money runs out.
Racing against a March 27 deadline, senators voted 63-35 to
limit debate on the legislation so that it can be approved and
sent to the House of Representatives for final approval this
A Senate vote on passage could come as early as Tuesday.
Just before the procedural vote, Senate Majority Leader
Harry Reid, frustrated by the slow pace, urged his colleagues to
let the legislation move ahead.
"There is a big spotlight on the United States Senate to see
if we can do something," Reid said, adding, "I'm asking senators
here to give up a few things for the greater good." He was
referring to the 125 or so time-consuming amendments that
senators had circulated, which were slowing passage of the
Notably, the bill retains $85 billion in controversial
spending cuts that began on March 1. This is the first big
installment on a 10-year, $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction plan
that has virtually every U.S. agency worried, from the Defense
Department to the Education Department and NASA.
As originally passed by the House, this short-term spending
bill would give the Pentagon some flexibility in how it carries
out its half of the $85 billion in spending cuts.
Senate Democrats are trying to expand that flexibility to
some non-defense government agencies.
With the Senate and House scheduled to begin a two-week
spring break on Friday, the March 27 deadline effectively was
moved up to the end of this week.
The $85 billion in spending cuts were supposed to be applied
evenly throughout the government and were intended to be so
universally painful to Republicans and Democrats that they would
find an alternative.
That has not yet happened and so lawmakers were resigned to
the $85 billion in cuts staying in place, but at the same time
were using the short-term funding bill to try to protect
programs particularly important to their home states.
AIRPLANES AND CHICKENS
Even fiscal conservatives who have made deep government
spending cuts their top priority, had been looking for ways to
negate some of the spending cuts.
For example, Republican Senator Pat Toomey tried to shield
from layoffs hundreds of civilian contractors working at a huge
Defense Department maintenance facility in his home state of
Meanwhile, Senator John Boozman joined up with Senator Mark
Pryor, both of Arkansas, and other senators to stop the Federal
Aviation Administration from closing air traffic control towers
in rural states. Four such towers in Arkansas could be shuttered
by the spending cuts known as "sequestration."
Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, home to a large
poultry industry, was part of an effort to stop the spending
cuts from furloughing government food inspectors who are needed
to keep slaughterhouses and other food facilities operating.
It was not clear which, if any, of these amendments
ultimately could be incorporated into the bill.
As Congress attempted to work cooperatively to pass the
short-term spending bill and avert a government shutdown, there
was no such bipartisanship on U.S. budget priorities for fiscal
2014, starting on Oct. 1, and beyond.
Republicans were stressing the need to balance the U.S.
budget in 10 years, while Democrats were calling for less
ambitious deficit-reduction and more emphasis on creating jobs
in a slow-growing economy.
The Republican-controlled House this week was set to pass a
budget aimed at erasing deficits by 2023 through deep cuts to
social programs such as Medicaid healthcare for the poor. The
fiscal blueprint, crafted by House Budget Committee Chairman
Paul Ryan, also would restructure Medicare healthcare for the
elderly and disabled.
A large group of conservative Republicans on Monday unveiled
their budget vision: growth in defense spending at the same pace
as the Ryan budget, but deeper cuts to other domestic programs
by freezing them at levels spent in 2008 for the next four
This alternative is not expected to pass the House. Neither
is a House Democratic alternative, which aims to cancel the $1.2
trillion in automatic spending cuts and replace them with more
targeted savings, while also spending $200 billion for job
Also this week, the Democratic-controlled Senate is expected
to debate and pass its fiscal 2014 budget blueprint, claiming
$1.85 trillion in deficit-reduction over a decade through an
equal mix of spending cuts and tax increases.
A compromise budget plan, if one is possible this year,
might be a few months away as President Barack Obama and
Republicans in Congress could joust through July over spending
cuts and tax increases. By late July or early August, Congress
must confront the need to raise U.S. borrowing authority or risk
a first-ever government default. The budget talks are likely to
become intertwined with the debt limit debate.