WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate passed a stopgap funding bill Tuesday to keep the government open into March, when Republicans will have greater power to cut federal spending.
The bill would freeze agency budgets at current levels. That's still too high for Republicans set to take over the House, who vow to cut many programs to levels in place when President Obama took office.
The measure is needed because the Democratic-controlled Congress — in an unprecedented breakdown of the budget process — has failed to pass a single one of the 12 annual spending bills that fund the day-to-day operations of every federal agency.
The 79-16 vote sends the measure to the House, which was expected to pass it promptly and ship it to Mr. Obama by midnight Tuesday to avoid a government shutdown.
The chain of events sets up a confrontation next year between Mr. Obama and Republicans, who will control the House. Speaker-to-be John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, and other GOP leaders have promised to try to cut most domestic agency budgets back to pre-Obama levels. Such cuts would exceed 20 percent for some agencies.
Republicans say such cuts would produce savings of $100 billion compared with Mr. Obama's February budget request. But with the government operating at current levels for almost half of the fiscal year, the actual savings that Republicans might be able to accomplish are likely to be considerably smaller. The budget year began Oct. 1.
Republicans will have increased leverage, but Democrats will retain control of the Senate and the White House. The threat of a government shutdown is real if Democrats and resurgent Republicans can't agree.
In fact, additional stopgap spending measures may be needed next year if the battle drags on, as seems likely.
At issue is the approximately one-third of the budget passed each year by Congress to fund day-to-day operations of the 15 Cabinet departments and other agencies. The rest of the budget is dominated by benefit programs such as Social Security, Medicare and the Medicaid health-care program for the poor and disabled.
Republicans haven't been very specific about which programs they want to cut next year, though they promise to rescind unspent money from last year's economic stimulus law, including billions of dollars for high-speed rail projects that critics say are likely to turn out to be boondoggles.
"Right now, there's a lot of posturing, a lot of slogans. I think they're going to go for a lot of quick, symbolic victories — no earmarks, trying to recapture unspent stimulus," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat. "Then I think they'll start with women and children. And I will be combat-ready."
The cuts are likely to come almost exclusively from domestic programs that have gotten boosts on the order of 10 percent a year since Mr. Obama took office.
Democrats warn that cutting spending is easier said than done.
"I think Republicans will discover that it's a lot easier to talk about cutting $100 billion than actually identifying the specific lines in the budget that they want to cut," said Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat. "Do they really want to cut 21 percent from child-care subsidies for working families — in this economy? Do they really want to cut 21 percent from job-training programs — in this economy?"
At the same time, Republicans have promised to increase spending for the Pentagon and the departments of Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security.
Senate Republicans last week blocked a move by Democrats to advance an almost $1.3 trillion spending bill to wrap up the unfinished budget work. The 1,924-page measure contained more than 6,700 home-state pet projects that Republicans have promised to give up.
The measure makes only a handful of funding adjustments from current levels, for example by cutting the Census budget way back since the decennial count has been completed.
It also implements Mr. Obama's recent proposal to freeze the salaries of federal civilian workers for two years.
The measure also provides $5.7 billion for the Pell Grant program, which provides grants of up to $5,550 to college students from low-income families.