WASHINGTON — The Senate voted 87 to 13 Thursday to keep the government funded until April 8, assuring that there'll be no government shutdown for three weeks — a deadline that adds new, unpredictable urgency to resolve the budget stalemate dividing Republicans and Democrats.
Talks between top administration officials and senior staff from the offices of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, have been ongoing, and Reid praised Boehner Thursday for having "the attitude we need to keep moving forward."
But other Democrats continued to complain that Republicans won't budge from their demand that $61 billion be cut from this fiscal year's spending. And Republicans say that Democrats, who so far have been willing to cut $10 billion, are too stubbornly protecting a host of unneeded government social programs. The deficit in fiscal 2011, which ends Sept. 30, is expected to reach a record $1.65 trillion.
Unless both parties compromise on issues each feels very strongly about, an April 8 shutdown of the federal government becomes increasingly likely, because both sides say they've had enough of these short-term budget extensions.
"Continuing to fund our government in two or three week increments adds uncertainty to our economy and distracts us from other urgent priorities facing our nation. Now is the time for Democrats and Republicans to come together and find a long-term solution . . . " said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., went further. "Running our government on the fumes of borrowed spending is unacceptable, short-sighted and dangerous," he said. "I will no longer support short-term budget plans."
Rubio was among nine Republicans who opposed the extension. Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and three Democrats, all liberals who want higher taxes on the wealthy and fewer cuts to social programs, also opposed it.
The three-week plan will cut $6 billion from current spending, largely through cuts in smaller federal programs as well as earmarks, or special local projects that lawmakers insert into legislation. The House of Representatives had voted for the package Tuesday. President Barack Obama must sign it Friday to avoid a government shutdown.
Reid praised the House for its vote. Had all Democrats joined the 54 Republicans who opposed the bill, it would have failed. But a bipartisan coalition muscled it through the House, and Reid said he was "heartened" by that willingness among many in both parties to work together.
He wouldn't discuss the Boehner/White House talks. The negotiators have to deal with an increasingly restless number of lawmakers who want more comprehensive, long-term solutions.
"We are looking in a small window of the budget," said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. "Something like one-sixth of the budget is where all the cuts are. (Congress is) confining the discussion to that, without looking at a millionaire's tax, without looking at closing (tax) loopholes."
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., one of the Senate's staunchest conservatives, had a similar view.
"The debate right now in Congress is not serious," DeMint said.
He joined Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, in offering their own five-year budget proposal Thursday. It would reduce military spending by 6 percent next year, achieve a surplus in fiscal 2016, and eliminate four Cabinet departments — Commerce, Education, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development. Some of their functions, such as nuclear research, would be transferred elsewhere.
Others are making less sweeping demands. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said any future fiscal 2011 spending bills must fund the Pentagon for the entire fiscal year.
Some lawmakers want to tie spending policy to the upcoming effort to raise the nation's debt ceiling. The Treasury Department predicts the $14.3 trillion limit could be reached as soon as next month.
But 23 Republican senators warned that before they'll accept any increase in that ceiling, the White House must seriously tackle entitlements such as Medicare and Medicaid.
"Strong leadership is needed now to advance possible solutions to ensure that our entitlement programs can serve both current and future generations," the senators wrote. "Without action to begin addressing the deficit, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for us to support a further increase in the debt ceiling."
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