WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congressional Republicans announced a plan on Monday to avoid a government shutdown later this month, seeking to calm the waters after months of budget fights that ended in a failure last week to halt damaging spending cuts.
Just three days into the $85 billion of automatic “sequester” cuts, Republicans in the House of Representatives turned their attention to the next fiscal deadline: the March 27 expiration of funding for government agencies and programs.
Should Congress fail to pass a new spending measure, the government will have to shut down most agencies and services - from national parks to the Federal Aviation Administration.
That would pile even more uncertainty onto the economy just as the worst effects of the sequester cuts begin to take effect in April.
After bruising encounters last year over the fiscal cliff of broad tax increases and spending cuts, and now sequestration, both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have lost some of their appetite - at least temporarily - for more confrontation and want to get through March without having to fight about how to keep government funded.
The bill gives some relief to the Defense Department, military construction and the Veterans Administration, but Democrats complained that it does not do enough to help domestic programs also hit by the sequester cuts that started Friday.
Sounding conciliatory, President Barack Obama said he was not giving up on trying to work with Republicans to reduce the deficit.
“I will continue to seek out partners on the other side of the aisle so that we can create the kind of balanced approach of spending cuts, revenues, entitlement reform that everybody knows is the right way to do things,” he said at the start of a cabinet meeting.
In phone calls with lawmakers at the weekend, Obama raised anew the issue of cutting entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security as a way out of the budget cuts. Reforming the social safety net is a pet project of Republicans.
The Republican bill on Monday, authored by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, would prevent a government shutdown by extending funding through the end of the fiscal year on September 30.
But it envisages keeping the automatic spending cuts in place, drawing criticism from Democrats that it only deals with a small part of Washington’s budget woes.
The fiscal crisis that has been going for months took its most serious turn yet last week when the automatic spending cuts came into force on Friday night because the two parties could not agree on what to replace them with.
Hundreds of thousands of federal government employees face furloughs, although many will not begin until early April.
But Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano advised airline passengers to get to airports early because the cuts have already led to long lines at some security checkpoints.
Napolitano said delays were up between 150 percent and 200 percent at certain airports. The Customs and Border Protection agency began reducing overtime over the weekend.
“Lanes that would have previously been open due to overtime staffing were closed, further exacerbating wait times at airports with typically longer international arrival processes,” the agency said.
In Chicago O’Hare International Airport’s arrivals terminal, Dave Wagner, 51, of Boston and his brother John, 48, of Chicago, arrived late Monday morning on a flight from Hong Kong. It took them an hour to clear customs and the wait appeared to be growing. “It should have taken maybe 15 or 20 minutes,” said Dave Wagner. “But there was only one agent for 12 lines.”
The Pentagon is the government department hardest hit by sequestration. The House Republican bill gives it some respite by allowing it to shift funds to away from outdated, unwanted projects to critical, front-line activities.
“The legislation will avoid a government shutdown on March 27th, prioritize DoD and Veterans programs, and allow the Pentagon some leeway to do its best with the funding it has,” Rogers said in a statement.
The Pentagon would be allowed to spend about $10 billion more on operations and maintenance than under a straight extension of previous funding that keeps money locked in unwanted accounts. This will help it maintain training and readiness and provide Republicans a way to shield the military from some of the cuts.
Accounting for the sequester cuts, the Republican bill would reduce the full-year discretionary spending levels to $982 billion, compared to $1.043 trillion previously.
But domestic programs, such as education funding and transportation security would be stuck with outdated extensions of spending authority passed 15 to 18 months ago, limiting their ability to shift funds.
“We need to have programs in there that meet compelling human need, housing, education, health care. And we also need to look at transportation,” Barbara Mikulski, the Democrat who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, told CNN on Friday.
Republican House aides said the measure faced reduced chances of passage if additional appropriations bills for domestic programs were attached to it.
The Republicans’ measure also steers some new funds to certain security efforts without increasing the overall spending cap. These include nuclear weapons modernization, FBI staffing levels and cybersecurity programs, border protection and federal prisons. It would also provide another $2 billion above the current level for embassy security after last year’s attacks on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton and Deborah Charles in Washington and James B. Kelleher in Chicago; Editing by Tim Dobbyn