- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 17, 2011

Congress on Thursday pushed a government shutdown back another three weeks then approved taking a vacation next week, leaving the hard work of striking a long-term deal for another day.

The Senate voted 87-13 to pass the three-week spending extension, sending the bill to President Obama for his signature, which must come before midnight Friday to avert a government shutdown.

Hours later, the Senate agreed to adjourn for 10 days, following the lead of the House, which already had approved closing up shop through March 29.

Just before adjourning, the House voted 228-192 to end federal taxpayer funding for NPR, though that measure is unlikely to see action in the Senate.

The spending fights on Capitol Hill are growing more testy, and all sides said Thursday’s short-term extension should be the last one. It will mean the government has run for more than half of the fiscal year on stopgap funding, which ties agencies’ hands.

“Today’s vote starts the clock again,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, who said the three weeks should put pressure on both sides to negotiate a compromise.

The three-week spending bill cuts $4.6 billion from 2010 spending levels and rescinds another $1.4 billion in unused money from previous years, leading to $6 billion in total savings.

Nine Republicans, three Democrats and one independent voted against the bill, with the GOP members arguing it doesn’t cut deeply enough and the Democrats saying it goes too far.

Some senators grumbled about their upcoming vacation, saying they should stay and negotiate, but nobody objected.

In the House, though, the vote was contentious — nearly all Democrats and a handful of Republicans voted against the move, but the Republican majority prevailed on a 232-197 vote earlier this week.

“We’re going on vacation next week. Rather than a vacation, maybe we should finish the work of this year,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat, during the floor debate that day. “Rather than having members go back and go on [congressional trips] overseas or go on vacations, let’s finish the business of this year.”

Mr. Obama, whom both parties say they would like to see get more involved, also will be gone, traveling to South America for a five-day trip.

It’s the latest in a series of interruptions.

Congress took a weeklong break at the end of last month, even with the first government shutdown deadline looming March 4. When it did reconvene, lawmakers passed a two-week extension, setting up the new deadline of this Friday.

In the meantime, Mr. Obama tapped Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to lead negotiations with Congress - but after hosting one meeting, Mr. Biden flew to Europe for a weeklong set of meetings with foreign leaders. He made a set of phone calls to congressional leaders one day but failed to connect with Mr. Reid and had only brief conversations with Republican leaders.

With a long-term agreement elusive, both sides agreed to yet another short-term bill, this time lasting three weeks, until April 8.

The House has passed a bill to fund the government through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, but the Senate has yet to produce a companion bill.

In fact, the Senate has held only the briefest of debates on spending.

Including Thursday’s action, the upper chamber has spent less than five hours this year officially debating spending and has held just four votes.

The House, by comparison, has spent nearly 70 hours debating and voting on amendments and bills, including holding more than 100 recorded votes, mostly on the yearlong bill.

Meanwhile, the House’s vote to defund NPR struck a partisan tone, with all Democrats opposing it and most Republicans supporting it.

The bill would prohibit public radio stations from using federal funds to buy programming from NPR, prohibit them from paying dues to NPR and end millions of dollars NPR receives directly from federal grants.

The White House said Mr. Obama is open to some trims from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provides some money to NPR. But the White House said it wants to protect individual stations.

“Undercutting funding for these radio stations, notably ones in rural areas where such outlets are already scarce, would result in communities losing valuable programming, and some stations could be forced to shut down altogether,” the White House said in a statement of policy.

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