Why House vote for short-term spending bill is important

Huzzah! Both House and Senate have voted to fund the government through the end of this fiscal year, and their measure is winging its way to Obama's desk for signing. Here are three reasons this is notable.

Gary Cameron/Reuters
House Speaker John Boehner holds a news conference at the US Capitol in Washington Thursday. The US House of Representatives on Thursday approved a budget blueprint marked by deep spending cuts to social programs that defines Republicans' positions on new fiscal battles this year and the 2014 congressional elections.

The House on Thursday approved a short-term funding bill that will pay for the operations of the US government through this September, the end of the 2013 fiscal year. The Senate had approved the bill Wednesday, meaning it has cleared Congress and now goes to President Obama, who has promised to sign it when he gets back from the Middle East.

Whew! Stop the presses! (Or in today’s digital journalism maybe we should say “stop the servers!”) Washington has just accomplished something many voters may have thought wasn’t possible: It has avoided a partisan budget battle. On purpose.

Yes, you might think that lawmakers today are fighting bitterly over fiscal matters. And in some ways they are. The House floor this week rang with arguments about fiscal 2014 budget outlines. On Thursday the GOP-controlled chamber also passed Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget plan, which aims to balance the nation’s books in a decade by sharply cutting safety-net programs and curtailing government agency spending.

But that’s about next year and the magical “out years” beyond. Those are far off and safer to dispute. The short-term funding bill is different. As we noted, it’s for 2013. In other words, it’s about what happens right now.

Here’s why the huge $984 billion short-term 2013 bill, also known as the “continuing resolution,” is notable.

The government stays open. The continuing resolution authorizes discretionary federal spending for the next six months. If Congress had not approved it by March 27, when the current CR expires, government agencies would have had to shut down. That’s happened before, of course, most notably in 1995 when then-Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Bill Clinton went toe to toe. But now neither party wants such a showdown. Agreement on the CR shows Washington can actually run the country when a real deadline looms.

The sequester gets locked in – and softened. Remember "the sequester"? It’s been almost four weeks since those automatic budget cuts kicked in due to congressional disagreement over other ways to reduce the US deficit.

The White House is still closed to tours. Airport security lines are longer. Acadia National Park in Maine will open a month late, and so forth.

The just-passed CR locks in government spending at a level that assumes those reductions will stay in place for the rest of the year. That means that despite White House warnings of the sequester’s effects, it’s here and it’s staying. Get used to it.

But the CR does soften some sequester cuts. It contains specific appropriations language for many (but not all) government agencies, and some of those details shift money around within agency budgets.

For instance, within the Defense Department budget, Congress has now authorized the shifting of billions to fill depleted operations accounts. The Agriculture Department can move $55 million to prevent furloughs among food inspectors.

Partisans are peeved. Both sides had to compromise to make the CR happen. This means there are Democratic and Republican partisans who are unhappy with what’s going on.

Some Democrats believe that by making the sequester reductions permanent the CR represents a defeat for the administration. President Obama made all those speeches about the dire nature of those reductions, traveling around the country to do so. Yet now they remain.

“That’s left Democrats resigned to malfunctioning and underfunded government in perpetuity, and Republicans confident they can weather the coming months and turn sequestration spending levels into a new normal,” writes Brian Beutler at Talking Points Memo.

In contrast, some Republicans aren’t happy that, in helping the CR pass, GOP leaders have in essence given up for now on getting rid of Mr. Obama’s health-care reforms, because funding for those reforms now stays in place.

At the conservative RedState website, for instance, editor Erick Erickson has posted a list of all the Republican senators who voted for the CR on final passage. Among those on the roll: Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky.

Senator McConnell has given fire-breathing speeches about the need to get rid of Obamacare, notes Mr. Erickson.

“Mitch McConnell excels at saying one thing and doing another. Yesterday, Mitch McConnell voted to fund Obamacare,” writes Erickson on Thursday.

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