WASHINGTON — Tuesday's vote in the House of Representatives to keep the federal government funded for two weeks is the first step toward averting a government shutdown starting Saturday, but it leaves the major differences between Republicans and Democrats over taxes and spending unresolved.
It also leaves tremendous uncertainty about what may happen next — whether the government will shut down later this month, or next, for want of funds, and whether the opposing sides ever can devise a long-term plan for reducing the national debt.
Tuesday's vote is little more than "kicking the can down the road," said veteran budget analyst Charles Konigsberg.
The House voted 335 to 91 to keep the government running until March 18, while cutting $4 billion. Voting yes were 231 Republicans and 104 Democrats; six Republicans and 85 Democrats voted no.
The Democratic-run Senate plans to vote Wednesday or Thursday on the two-week funding plan. Unless it passes, government funding runs out March 4.
The House last month approved $61 billion in cuts through the rest of fiscal 2011, which ends Sept. 30, but the Democratic-run Senate is unlikely to concur, leading to the two-week temporary solution while they seek common ground on the rest of the fiscal year.
Ultimately, the fight over short-term spending is the year's first act in a more consequential drama — how to reduce federal debt over the long term. So far they've concentrated only on cutting non-military domestic discretionary programs that make up only 12 percent of the budget. They haven't touched the big-money programs that drive up budget deficits — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and defense — not to mention possibly raising taxes to help end deficits.
But lawmakers face two looming deadlines: The federal authority to borrow will run out later this spring, and fiscal 2012 begins Oct. 1. Both deadlines will force Congress to confront tax and spending choices again.
The longer lawmakers deal with this year's spending, the less time they'll have to craft a serious plan to address long-term issues, observed longtime budget analyst Stan Collender. Another worry is that this short-term debate will stiffen both sides, making later negotiations more difficult.
"We're frustrated that there's such a hue and cry over a very small part of the budget. It reinforces the perception that the problem is just waste, fraud, and abuse," said Robert Bixby, the executive director of the Concord Coalition, a budget watchdog group. "In some ways, it's a substitute for a more serious budget debate they need to have."
Both sides Tuesday amped up their already-loud rhetoric. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called the House vote "an opportunity for House Democrats to admit the status quo isn't working."
Democrats fired back, warning that if severe cuts are adopted, 2011 will be remembered as the year "right-wing extremists defied common sense," said Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla.
The two-week cuts would affect a wide array of programs, including eliminating $1.24 billion for eight programs that Obama didn't propose funding in his budget proposal for fiscal 2012, which starts Oct. 1.
Among them: Election assistance grants, an agriculture loan subsidy program, four education programs — including aid to smaller learning communities — and some federal highway money.
Also cut would be $2.7 billion for earmarks — lawmakers' pet projects back home — including Army Corps of Engineers construction, border patrol, some Federal Emergency Management Agency programs, Labor Department salaries and expenses, and education programs.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said he backed the two-week measure, but his patience is ebbing. "It's going to get tougher, not easier," he said. "There are some of us out there who won't play this game of $4 billion every two weeks."
The Senate, he said, must agree to substantial spending cuts. "There's plenty of time for wheelchair races," Chaffetz said of the more senior Senate. "It's time to get down to business."
Few appeared eager for a shutdown — or at least for being blamed for one.
"The goal of House Republicans is not to shut down the government, but to rein in the out-of-control spending that is devastating our economy," said Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C.
Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., said "It would never be our goal to shut the government down," but added that he and other GOP freshmen are "going to continue to push for what we were elected to do — cut spending."
The White House suggested Tuesday doubling the length of the temporary fix to four weeks and the spending cuts in that time to $8 billion. But House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, rejected the idea, saying it should have been floated sooner, not the day of the vote.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the administration thinks a shutdown — or constant threats of a shutdown — would hurt the economy and anger voters. He said that President Barack Obama doesn't want "a toll booth, where we are negotiating again and again on continuing resolutions to fund the government for two weeks or another short-term period. There may be a process where we do that once or twice, but the focus needs to be on the longer-term deal."
The two-week extension would expire on the eve of Obama's planned five-day visit to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador. If congressional negotiators can't agree by then on a new funding measure, that would put the president in a delicate bind. On the one hand, if the government shuts down, he'll feel obliged to stay home to manage things.
But if he does that, he'll risk offending foreign partners — not a desirable way to conduct diplomacy. Obama twice had to cancel departures for Indonesia last year because of domestic events — first the congressional fight over his health care expansion and later the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
(Barbara Barrett and David Goldstein contributed to this article.)
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