WASHINGTON — While Wednesday’s Senate vote assured that the federal government will have enough money to stay open through March 18, lawmakers and analysts expressed little confidence that a longer-term agreement on spending can be reached in time to avoid a shutdown.
Pressure began to mount on both sides to stick to their guns _from interest groups, which are running ads and holding rallies, and from both parties, each eager to tar the other as fiscally irresponsible.
The Senate voted 91-9 Wednesday to fund the government through March 18 and to cut spending by $4 billion in that time. The House of Representatives approved the measure Tuesday, and President Barack Obama signed it into law later Wednesday.
Its passage satisfied no one, since it only postponed the partisan showdown.
After the vote, Obama said, "I’m pleased that Democrats and Republicans in Congress came together and passed a plan that will cut spending and keep the government running for the next two weeks. But we cannot keep doing business this way."
He called for talks to begin immediately among Republican and Democratic lawmakers, Vice President Joe Biden, White House Chief of Staff William Daley and Budget Director Jacob Lew.
The immediate issue is what level of spending can be agreed on to keep the government running through Sept. 30, the end of the 2011 fiscal year, but the talks could expand beyond that.
Sometime this spring, the government will hit its $14.3 trillion debt limit. Unless Congress raises it, Washington then will be unable to borrow. In addition, by Oct. 1, lawmakers will have to adopt a fiscal 2012 budget, at least a temporary one. Each deadline poses risks of a shutdown.
The high-level talks are expected to include ideas for compromising on painful choices over taxes and entitlements, programs such as Social Security and Medicare whose benefits qualified people are legally entitled to receive.
“As far as we’re concerned, everything is on the table,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. But reaching a bipartisan compromise _ particularly in two weeks _ will be very difficult, if not impossible.
“I think they will come up with some sort of compromise, but nobody knows how this will play out. Everyone agrees that this is bad politics,” said Maya MacGuineas, the president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a watchdog group.
Another school of thought holds that neither Democrats nor Republicans can compromise much yet, lest they incur the wrath of supporters. Instead, they must show that they’re willing to let the government shut down rather than back down, then hope that the public blames the other side for the dysfunction. Perhaps after that, a real compromise could be negotiated.
Within minutes of Wednesday’s vote, partisan sniping began.
Republicans voiced pride in how the House, on a party-line vote, approved $61.5 billion in fiscal 2011 cuts last month. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, asked Wednesday: “Americans have a right to know: Where is Senate Democrats’ plan to cut spending and fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year?”
Democrats said that Republicans not only were taking a meat ax to needed spending, but also were failing to confront broader issues. All of the GOP’s proposed spending cuts fall on only 12 percent of the budget, not on the programs that are causing federal deficits.
“Continuously passing short-term funding bills without addressing the long-term needs of the government is ineffective and inefficient,” said Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill.
Outside the Capitol, members of the National Treasury Employees Union rallied behind Democrats, while MoveOn.org, a liberal grass-roots group, began running TV ads that call on Democrats to stand up to Republicans.
“Call Congress and tell them: Protect the American dream. Stop the Republican war on the middle class,” the ad says.
On the other side, Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, an advocacy group with ties to GOP operative Karl Rove, has been running a radio ad in 22 Democratic congressional districts. It starts with former President Ronald Reagan saying, “Government is the problem,” and goes on to criticize Democrats for voting to “continue the failed spending policies of Pelosi and Obama,” referring to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
Tea party loyalists were also unhappy. The two-week extension, said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., still spends too much. “At that rate, we will never get our nation’s fiscal house in order. Unless we consider making cuts to every major piece of legislation, we will not come close to balancing the budget,” Paul said.
The public is split over whether a government shutdown would be good or bad. A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday found that 46 percent said a shutdown would be good, while 44 percent said it would be bad. Opinions were divided largely along party lines, but 47 percent of independent voters liked the idea, while 42 percent didn’t. The survey was conducted Feb. 21-28, after the House had passed its $61 billion in cuts. The margin of error was plus or minus 2.3 percentage points.
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