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Congress passes spending bill amid doubts. How much does it actually cut?

The spending deal that averted a government shutdown passed the House and Senate Thursday. But a recent report suggests it cuts only $352 million this year, not $39 billion.

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The speaker acknowledged that the cuts aren't as big as many Republicans hoped for, but he said they would help pave the way for deeper and longer-term spending reforms in his party's "path to prosperity" budget for 2012.

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“Listen, this bill is not perfect. No cause for celebration. This is just one step. And the next step will come tomorrow when the House votes on Chairman Ryan’s budget, the path to prosperity,” he added.

Of the Republicans who went along, many echoed Boehner’s reasoning.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly a long way from what they used to do around here, which is to spend more money,” said freshman Rep. Lou Barletta (R) of Pennsylvania. “As a former mayor, seeing those community development block grants cut were painful to me, but we’ve made it clear that this reckless spending binge we’ve been on is over.

'Slow, sad, silly' process

To liberal critics, the CBO estimates suggest that Republicans brought the government to the brink of a shutdown – potentially disrupting the economy via fallout such as a stoppage of federal paychecks – for savings that measure only in the millions dollars.

“Here ends the slow, sad, silly FY 2011 appropriations process,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D) of Ohio, who opposed the bill on the grounds that the cuts would hurt jobs. “Ironically, the largest cuts are in transportation and housing at a time when 40 percent of the building trades are out of work,” she said after the vote.

Some conservative economists side with Boehner in looking at the spending cut glass as half-full.

Whether the cuts are reductions in appropriations or rescissions of unspent money, both have the effect of reducing the government's authority to spend, says Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the conservative American Action Forum. In a blog post Wednesday he called the affair a "tempest in a teapot."

“Ironically, budgeting, which we tend to think of as very precise, is an art, rather than a science,” says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont-McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. “A rough analogy is that ‘budget authority’ is opening the checking account, and outlay is writing the check. If you’re interested in what the government actually spends, you need to look at outlays.”

• Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.

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