Divided House votes for 3-week budget extension

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 15, 2011 

WASHINGTON — A deeply divided House of Representatives agreed Tuesday to provide enough money to keep the government open for three more weeks, but increasingly surly lawmakers made it clear that finding a longer-term budget agreement is going to be tense and tough.

Next stop for the short-term plan, which cuts $6 billion from current year spending and keeps the government running through April 8, is the Senate.

Its leaders have been sniping at each other over the budget for weeks and continued to do so Tuesday. Current government spending authority expires Friday.

"Lurching from two weeks to three weeks of funding may serve some political purpose," said Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill. "It doesn't serve the purpose of good government."

Senate Republicans were divided over how to proceed. Some are willing to pass the three-week funding bill to permit three more weeks of negotiations on a budget for the rest of the fiscal year, through Sept. 30. Others thought it's time for a showdown.

The deficit is expected to reach a record $1.65 trillion this fiscal year, and the government is currently about $14 trillion in debt.

The current debt limit is $14.3 trillion, a figure the Treasury Department expects could be reached as soon as next month. Then the government would lose authority to borrow unless Congress raises the limit, a task it's expected to pursue before it leaves April 15 for a spring recess.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said he was against any more short-term extensions, saying he did "not come to the U.S. Senate to be part of some absurd political theater."

Democrats control 53 of the 100 Senate seats.

The ultimate solution to funding the government through Sept. 30 and perhaps beyond appears to rest with private talks between congressional leaders, Vice President Joe Biden and top White House officials.

The White House was circumspect Tuesday about the future. Spokesman Jay Carney said the House vote "gives Congress some breathing room to find consensus."

But he added a note of both mild defiance and hope: "We have already met Republicans halfway, and we are optimistic that Congress can get this done," Carney said.

Republicans dispute that. Democrats claim they've been willing to cut $51 billion from President Obama's fiscal 2011 budget request, while Republicans are seeking about $100 billion in cuts from that baseline.

But Republicans say that's not halfway, because Democrats want to cut actual current-year spending by only $6.5 billion, compared to their $61 billion proposal.

Tuesday's House vote could make agreement even harder, because it reinforced schisms in both parties over how to proceed.

There was agreement on one item: "We cannot continue to fund the government with a series of stopgap measures and I am hopeful that this is the last short-term (measure) we will have to deal with," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.

Some 54 House Republicans opposed the three-week extension, and some vowed to support a government shutdown unless they see more serious budget slashing.

"Nobody wants a government shutdown, but unless we take a stand, we will shut down the future for our children and grandchildren," said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., who opposed the short-term bill.

Conservatives were frustrated.

"Congress must have the courage to look beyond the small, short-term cuts included in today's spending resolution and begin to think big," said Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., a freshman who voted no.

"I don't want to be fiscally irresponsible," said Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., another freshman who voted no.

Other Republicans urged more patience.

"We are providing a leadership example for spending cuts," said Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., since under the short-term budgets, cuts are being made at a rate of $2 billion a week. If that continued until the end of fiscal 2011 on Sept. 30, conservatives would meet their 2010 "Pledge to America" goal of cutting $100 billion this year from President Barack Obama's budget request.

The tension wasn't confined to the GOP. Democrats were also split, as 104 opposed the bill.

"I don't think the fundamental problem with the economy is the budget or the deficit," said Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn. "It's the lack of jobs. It would be tragic if there was a shutdown, but we have to have cooperation. I don't want a shutdown, but we have to have cooperating partners."

Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said that while "I don't like it, it's not the way to fund the government, but I'm open to give it one more shot. But it's the last time."

ON THE WEB

House roll call on three-week extension

Three-week budget extension details

House Republican spending cuts

President Obama's 2012 budget

Congressional Budget Office budget and economic outlook

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