WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives took the first step Wednesday toward keeping the federal government open after March 27, passing a bill to extend spending levels through Sept. 30 and preserving the automatic spending cuts that went into effect Friday.
The House bill would make one change in the recent automatic spending cuts, called a sequester: It would give the military and veterans programs officials more flexibility to shift the cuts around their departments to minimize impacts. The House adopted the plan to extend government financing by a vote of 267-151.
While the Democratic Senate is likely to propose changes, the tone of the debate in the House and support from 53 Democrats for the GOP proposal suggested an eagerness to avoid a partial government shutdown when current funding runs out for a share of the government. At the same time, President Barack Obama planned a dinner Wednesday night with a group of Republican senators at a downtown hotel and visits to the Capitol next week. A meeting with Senate Republicans at the Capitol next week will be his first such outreach in three years.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the prospects for an agreement to keep the government open past March 27. The Senate is expected to consider a plan next week.
The measure involves discretionary spending in the $3.55 trillion federal budget, the portion that Congress and Obama can more easily control. Not included are programs subject to automatic increases, such as Social Security and certain health care benefits.
The Democrats’ chief complaint with the House bill was its acceptance of the sequester for domestic programs. But the White House was gentle in its criticism, avoiding a veto threat and saying it was “pleased” that the bill maintained spending levels.
It did say, though, that the bill “raises concerns about the government’s ability to protect consumers, avoid deep cuts in critical services that families depend on, and implement critical domestic priorities such as access to quality and affordable health care.”
The statement reflected the tranquil mood toward the funding measure, a possible sign that Washington is aware the public and the financial markets have had enough bickering.
“We were badly damaged by this fighting,” said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. “When we go home people are saying, ‘You guys need to sit down and work things out.’ Both sides are hearing that.”
Including Obama. When he meets with Senate Republicans March 14, it will be the first time he’s visited the caucus at the Capitol in nearly three years. He’s already begun calling senators, talking about the budget, immigration and other matters.
In the meantime, the debate Wednesday was a recitation of familiar partisan themes. Both sides railed against sequestration, and how the bill was keeping the automatic cuts alive for six more months.
“This is crazy. I really believe that both sides of this little bubble here in Washington there is a bipartisan consensus that what we’re doing here is crazy . . . mindless, senseless across-the-board cuts and no urgency,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. “There’s a little snow on the ground, National Airport is closed, we can’t really go anywhere until it reopens. We ought to stay here and figure out an alternative to sequestration.”
Republicans also were not pleased. William “Mac” Thornberry, R-Texas, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the bill, like sequestration, “is not what any of us like. . . . But as imperfect as this measure is, I believe that it is absolutely essential to pass it today.”
If nothing else, he said, it “makes sense, especially for defense. . . . Defense is the first job of the federal government. We send our soldiers and intelligence community personnel to all parts of the world to defend us. The least we can do is to give them the flexibility and support to do their jobs.”