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House’s 2-week stopgap bill cuts $4 billion

Measure would avert shutdown

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Congress cleared the path Tuesday to avert an end-of-the-week government shutdown as Democrats and Republicans rallied around the GOP's two-week funding bill that cuts $4 billion from 2010 spending levels.

A striking bipartisan House majority voted 335-91 for the spending cuts, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said his colleagues will soon follow suit, accepting the bill despite a last-minute plea from President Obama to extend the time frame from two to four weeks.

"We'll pass this, and then we'll look to funding the government on a long-term basis," Mr. Reid told reporters after meeting with fellow Democrats and deciding not to fight the House measure. The Senate is expected to vote on the bill Wednesday.

Republicans said the bill, which would guarantee funding through March 18, signals that after a decade of increased spending, Congress is swinging its support behind cutting. The question, they said, is how deeply.

"I think all of us know that cutting spending in Washington, D.C., never happens. And so to think that we're going to have significant cuts in spending levels, it's not going to be easy," House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said before the vote. "I understand that, Senator Reid understands that, but I think all of us know that we are going to cut spending."

Still, the House measure buys only two weeks, and the two sides are still far apart on agreeing to fund the government through the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

Two weeks ago, House Republicans passed a broader bill that cuts $61 billion from 2010 spending levels, but Senate Democrats oppose it, and Mr. Obama said he would veto it. Mr. Boehner and other Republicans said the two-week reprieve gives the Senate time to return to work on their own version of that bill.

Spending has been the dominant issue on Capitol Hill this year, driven mainly by House Republicans, who gained control of the chamber as a result of last year's elections.

The country notched deficits of more than $1 trillion in 2009 and in 2010 and is projected to hit a record $1.6 trillion in 2011. Meanwhile, the national debt has risen more than $3.5 trillion since Mr. Obama took office.

With both sides now calling for reductions, the key questions are how much, how quickly and to what programs.

The Republicans' short-term bill cuts $4 billion from 2010 levels by erasing $2.7 billion in previously approved earmarks and trimming $1.24 billion from eight programs that Mr. Obama has put on the chopping block, including broadband funding, election-assistance grants and several small education initiatives.

Nearly all Republicans and a majority of Democrats voted for the House GOP's bill, which even managed to split Democratic leaders. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, and Assistant Minority Leader James E. Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat, voted against the cuts, but Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, and House Democratic Caucus Chairman John B. Larson of Connecticut voted for them.

Senate Democrats' support for the two-week bill undercuts the White House, which, after taking a hands-off approach for most of the debate, floated the idea Tuesday of a monthlong agreement with deeper spending cuts, reaching $8 billion.

Mr. Boehner said the president came to the table too late.

"If there had been a conversation about this 10 days ago or two days ago, you know, we might have had something to talk about," he said Tuesday morning.

Several hours later, the White House announced that Mr. Obama had called Mr. Boehner, and they talked about a path forward.

Mr. Reid said Mr. Obama needs to get more involved in the negotiations.

"I think they should be involved more, and I think they will be," he said, adding that he wants the president to talk to Americans more concretely about the programs Republicans would cut in their quest to get spending under control.

The House debate was punctuated by Democrats' charges that cutting spending could halt the slow economic recovery and by Republicans' claims that the deficit demands immediate action.

Both sides engaged in some dissembling.

House Democrats repeatedly blasted Republicans for agreeing to only a two-week extension, saying it doesn't offer the stability that businesses and federal agencies need. But when they controlled all the levers of power last year, Democrats passed one two-week funding bill and another four-day funding bill.

Meanwhile, Republicans said they are open to more cutting, but they refused to allow an amendment by Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, that would have recaptured $1 billion in unspent money at the U.S. Census Bureau and used $577 million to restore education funding while putting the rest to deficit reduction.

Republicans did say they invited Mrs. Pelosi to offer her own spending freeze as an alternative amendment on the House floor, but she did not do so.

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