WASHINGTON — Congress will likely avert a federal government shutdown this week, but lawmakers signaled Sunday that there's still plenty of short-term and long-term fiscal fights ahead on spending cuts and deficit reduction.
The House of Representatives returns from its President's Day recess Monday poised to vote on a compromise stopgap plan to fund the federal government for two weeks beyond Friday.
The measure, embraced by House and Senate Democratic leaders, contains $4 billion in new spending cuts, several of them already called for by President Barack Obama in his fiscal 2012 budget proposal.
If approved, the measure, at least temporarily, ends a political game of chicken between leaders in the GOP-controlled House and the Democratic-run Senate over a potential government shutdown and who would be to blame if it actually happened.
"We have a moral responsibility to address the problems we face," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Sunday in prepared remarks to the National Religious Broadcasters convention. "That means working together to cut spending and rein in government — not shutting it down."
The potential for a 2011 shutdown drew comparisons to the budget duel between President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., that resulted in the government shutting down twice in the fall and winter of 1995-96.
The first closure, in November 1995, lasted six days and resulted in the furloughs of 800,000 federal workers. The second shutdown lasted 21 days, from Dec. 16, 1995, to Jan. 6, 1996, and resulted in 284,000 federal furloughs while another 475,000 employees worked without pay.
Gingrich and Republicans were widely blamed for the shutdowns. Mindful of the political consequences, Republican, Democrats and the White House all said last week that they didn't want the government to close.
Still, some bad blood and unfinished business continues. While lauding the compromise measure, Boehner blasted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., for blocking a Senate vote on a House-approved spending package that would cut more than $60 billion over the next seven months.
The measure would pare such programs as job training and employment grants, health centers, high-speed rail, diplomatic programs, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and reduces funding for border security.
"The House passed legislation — reflecting the will of the people — that would keep the government running through October while cutting spending," Boehner told the religious broadcasters. "The leader of the United States Senate has refused to allow a vote on this legislation."
Bracing for a fight, congressional Democratic leaders continued to balk at the size and scope of the cuts in the House bill.
"Republicans must abandon the extreme and arbitrary cuts they called for in their spending bill that passed the House ... and move closer to Democrats' position of cutting spending in a smart, targeted way," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said Friday.
Even some Republicans expressed concerns about the long-term impact of the proposed cuts. Arizona Republican Gov. Jan. Brewer, lauded by GOP leaders for pushing through Arizona's controversial new immigration laws, acknowledged that one cut approved by House Republicans could lead to 685 Border Patrol agents being let go, a problem for her state.
"I believe we that we need as much resources that are necessary to get our borders secure," Brewer said Sunday on ABC's "This Week." "The bottom line is, is that the budget has not been completed. I'm hopeful that it will be reinstated, the dollars. And I hope those dollars end up in Arizona, and in Texas and in California."
In state after state, the battle lines so far have fallen largely along party lines. In Iowa, Jill Ellsworth, a 41-year-old massage therapist from Urbandale, supports the substantial cuts, even though her parents are farmers who receive federal subsidies.
"I question my dad on subsidies," she said.
But Democratic state Sen. Gene Fraise recalled hearing groans during a town hall meeting that he held recently in what he thought was a largely Republican crowd in Keokuk where
"They started complaining," Fraise said. "They didn't want to take money away from education."
Though the chances of a government shutdown appear slim this week, some lawmakers and budget analysts worry that Republicans and Democrats will be unable to reach a long-term compromise on spending cuts and that the government might lurch along on two-week funding resolutions.
That could put the issue of cutting spending on a collision course with another volatile issue on Capitol Hill: whether or not to raise the debt ceiling.
The federal government could run out of money by March 31, and Congress must decide whether to raise the $14.3 trillion ceiling on federal borrowing.
Many of the new tea party-backed freshman Republicans in the House and Senate say they're against raising the ceiling or would only agree to raise it if Congress and the White House agreed to significant cuts in federal spending.
The potential threat of government funding and debt ceiling deadlines might make the voting public immune to the potential gloom and doom that each issue brings, said Ross Baker, a political science professor at New Jersey's Rutgers University.
"It's kind of like the air raid drills we used to have," Baker said. "After a while it becomes routine and the enormity of nuclear war fades."
Or, Baker added, the dual threat could lead to more political games of chicken.
"There is a constituency, particularly among conservatives, for a shutdown," he said. "And there are liberals on the president's side who probably think this would be good for Democrats."
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