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Another year, another stopgap bill instead of real budget

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Congress is heading into the final stretch of its summer work period having passed none of its annual spending bills. What's more, with the start of the next budget year some 70 days away, a tit-for-tat between the Democrat-controlled Senate and the GOP-run House means it's unlikely that any of the bills will reach the president's desk for his signature.

So with Capitol Hill calcified with partisan gridlock, lawmakers are gearing up for an all-too-familiar annual routine: kicking their appropriating responsibilities down the road by passing temporary, stopgap funding bills to avoid a government shutdown at the start of the next fiscal year Oct. 1.

A central duty of Congress is to appropriate money for the federal government to stay open, an annual process that is supposed to be handled through 12 major spending bills. By law, all such appropriations measures must originate in the House before moving on to the Senate. On Thursday, the House passed a 2013 spending plan for the Pentagon — the seventh appropriations bill to clear the lower chamber this year.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, has refused to take up any of the House's spending bills before the November elections, saying they include more cuts than Congress agreed to as part of last summer's hotly contested compromise to raise the federal debt limit.

The debt deal called for discretionary spending to be capped at $1.047 trillion in 2013. Democrats view the number as a spending target, while Republicans say they are free — and morally obligated — to spend less.

"Until the Republicans get real, we can't do [spending bills], because [House Republicans] have refused to adhere to the law that guides this country," Mr. Reid said earlier this month.

Republicans say Mr. Reid is going back on his word because he said earlier this year that he would work to bring spending bills to the Senate floor for a vote. Because the Senate can ignore the House's spending blueprints and draft its own versions, as is common, Republicans say, Mr. Reid's argument about spending limits is irrelevant.

"There is no excuse whatsoever for not bringing up appropriations bills on the floor of the Senate," Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, said during a floor speech Wednesday. "The reasons [Mr. Reid] gives are very puzzling."

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers called Mr. Reid's refusal to take up House-passed spending bills "absurd" and accused the Senate Democratic leadership team of "defaulting on their most basic fiscal duty."

"The 12 annual appropriations bills cannot be swept under the rug and ignored until a more convenient political time," the Kentucky Republican said.

Only twice since 2000 have both chambers passed all 12 appropriations bills in time for the start of the fiscal year, choosing instead to pass a series of stopgap measures that generally keep funding at the same levels, though some tweaks do occur. Congress didn't pass any of its individual spending bills on time the past two years.

Relying on stopgap funding measures instead of individual appropriations bills delays needed action to lower the federal deficit and deal with long-term debt issues, said Darrell M. West, a political specialist with the Brookings Institution, a liberal-leaning Washington think tank.

"The problem with government by [stopgap measures] is it maintains the status quo, and the challenge today is, we need to make changes," Mr. West said. "Just continuing to roll over the old budget into the new fiscal year doesn't allow us to address the problems that everybody recognizes."

Through much of Congress' history, passing and sending all dozen measures to the president for his signature was a practice that was expected and typically followed. But with the legislative branch and White House increasingly split between the two parties the past two decades, bitter political wrangling has led Congress to routinely fall short of its appropriations duties.

"Since the 1980s, we've been in divided government more often than we've had united governments, so it's not unusual that this circumstance has occurred," said Don Ritchie, the Senate's official historian. "It's generally easier to get things done when one party controls both houses [of Congress] and the White House."

Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations Committee is moving forward with its own versions of spending bills, so far approving nine. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii Democrat, has said he remains hopeful that at least some spending bills will clear the full Senate before the deadline at the end of September.

But without Mr. Reid's consent, the bills are doomed to congressional limbo, and with the fiscal year winding down and Congress set to begin its monthlong summer break in early August, time is running out for the Senate to pass even a token number of spending bills.

"Not taking up the [appropriations] resolutions is not a good way to run a government," Mr. West said.

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