With a robust, bipartisan vote, the Senate passed a stopgap measure to fund government through April 8, amid signals that neither side will be willing to do it again.
But the path to coming up with a spending bill for the rest of fiscal year 2011 in the next three weeks is rocky, especially with President Obama not personally engaged in the negotiations, say lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Indeed, Congress now appears primed for the battle of wills presaged by the midterm elections, with Senate Democrats flatly refusing to consider massive cuts and tea-party freshmen refusing to accept token trims.
“The Speaker has a choice: He can cater to the tea party and inevitably face a shutdown on April 8, or he can work with Democrats,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York in comments to reporters after Thursday’s Senate vote. “There is a path forward, and it’s not through the tea party.”
Republicans and Democrats issue demands
Thursday's stopgap continuing resolution (CR) cuts spending $6 billion below fiscal year 2010 levels and averts a government shutdown on March 18. It passed the Senate 87 to 13. Nine Republicans, three Democrats, and one Independent voted in opposition. A previous, two-week bill cut spending another $4 billion.
“When signed into law, this measure will mean that we've cut $10 billion in just five weeks, which is a step in the right direction to begin to make Washington live within its means,” said House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia in a statement. "Now that we've put more time on the clock, I again implore the president and Senate Democrats to give us an offer that can get majority support in the Senate to fund the government for the remainder of the fiscal year that includes serious spending cuts."
The House and Senate are far apart on the scope of proposed cuts. On Feb. 19, the House passed a bill that cut $62 billion in discretionary spending for FY 2011, pushing spending back to FY 2008 levels. Senate Democrats proposed $6 billion in cuts over the same period. Both measures failed in up-or-down Senate votes last week. To avoid a government shutdown on April 9, the House and Senate must bridge that gap.
For their part, Democrats say House Republicans must drop the partisan policy riders on their budget – for example, to defund implementation of health-care reform, block EPA moves to regulate greenhouse gases, or end federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
“Our position is that the riders have to be off the bill,” said Senator Schumer. “It’s hard enough to deal with the numbers without adding these controversial riders.”
In response, Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said that policy provisions in funding bills are routine. “Senator Schumer has voted for hundreds, if not thousands of them,” he said in an e-mail.
Prospects for a deal
Meanwhile, bipartisan efforts are under way to find a compromise on spending for FY 2011 and beyond. In the Senate, a six-member, bipartisan team has been negotiating how to move forward on recommendations from President Obama’s fiscal commission. Sens. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee and Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri are building support for a measure to cap federal spending and “put Congress in a straitjacket.”
“We’re building momentum,” said Senator Corker.
In addition, Representative Cantor and Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma announced a new effort to implement a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that identified $100 billion in duplicative and wasteful programs. House whip Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland is participating in this effort, they said.
“This report shows Congress could spend the rest of the year going program by program and produce massive savings while improving the quality of services across the government,” Senator Coburn said in a statement.
Still, with discussions at the top leadership level stalled, a breakthrough on spending for the balance of the fiscal year will be needed to avoid a shutdown.
Negotiations at a staff level between the White House and congressional leaders are expected to continue this week as the House and Senate head home for a recess next week.