Shutdown threat abates -- for now
Senate action comes on the heels of House passage of the two-week CR, which passed on Tuesday, 335-91.
House Republicans fended off efforts by Democrats to extend a two-week continuing resolution through the end of the month, which the White House had pushed but which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said wasn't going to happen this time around.
The short-term CR hands a victory to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and complicates Senate Democrats' efforts to impose their will on federal funding levels in negotiations on a CR for the remainder of the fiscal year. The current CR expires on March 4, and the new two-week measure expires on March 18.
Along with the two-week time frame, the House CR-which 85 Democrats supported and six Republicans opposed-would cut $4 billion from current discretionary spending levels. That includes $1.2 billion by ending funding for eight programs also proposed in President Obama's fiscal 2012 budget proposal. Another roughly $2.8 billion was saved from cutting funds for about 50 earmarks.
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the administration and Democrats were pushing for a four- to five-week stopgap CR and $8 billion in cuts.
But Reid declined to even try to put that proposal on the floor because he would need some Republican support in order to pass it, which was not likely forthcoming.
"We will pass this" two-week CR, Reid said on Tuesday.
Last month, the House approved a spending bill to fund the government through the remainder of the fiscal year, until September 30, and would cut about $60 billion from current discretionary spending levels-a measure Democrats oppose.
"We are confident that that [the two-week CR] will clear the Senate," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said. "It represents a prorated share of what would be reduced over the next two years had we passed the $60 billion reduction in the initial House bill. And then we'll continue to talk with our Democratic friends in the White House about where to go from here with regard to the balance of this fiscal year."
Reid said Obama will use his bully pulpit and become more involved in negotiating with Republicans on a compromise for the remainder of the fiscal year.
"The president's going to get involved in this," Reid said. "He has already talked to Boehner … I talked to the White House quite a few times this morning. And we're going to work on long-term funding of this government."
"I'm anxious to meet with McConnell and Boehner and anyone from the White House at any time," Reid continued. "We need to work our way through this. But the sooner we get this short-term funding of the government done, the quicker we can move to a long-term CR. That is where we're headed."
But in accepting the House CR, Democrats appear to be in a bind. House Republicans can likely win passage of additional two-week CRs that continue spending at their preferred levels. That leaves the GOP with limited incentive to bargain on a long-term bill.
Senate Democratic aides said that after the chamber passes the latest two-week CR, they expect passage of at least one additional two-week bill, with similar cuts included. Democrats plan in the interim to roll out their own seven-month bill and hope to "draw a contrast" that, as one aide put it, would alter the negotiating dynamic.
Senate appropriators are still drafting that measure, which is likely to include between $10 billion and $25 billion in cuts from current levels, also by eliminating earmarks and accelerating the program cuts Obama has sought. Democrats say they will not accept more controversial cuts, such as reductions in community block grants and to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Aides say Democrats also will not accept $61 billion in overall cuts.
That leaves Democrats hoping that Republicans will bargain over a CR that cuts spending somewhere between $60 billion and the level of reductions in the Democratic CR. A key question will be whether House Republicans stand by the program cuts in their long-term CR-which are far less acceptable to Democrats-or negotiate over a bill similar to their two-week measure. The latter would be designed to appeal to Democrats, with White House proposals accounting for most of the cuts.
Democrats say House Republicans have yet to indicate how they will proceed, and might be unsure of their own tactics amid concern that freshman Republicans could revolt over any deal that Senate Democrats see as acceptable.
Reid and Democratic aides said on Tuesday that Republicans refused to consider a one-month CR or anything beyond the two-week proposal. Democrats argue that posture reflects the reality that Boehner is unsure if the conservatives will back such a deal.
"Some of them aren't sure they won," a Democratic leadership aide said.
Indeed, conservatives in both parties have announced opposition to the short-term measure. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, for one, said on Tuesday that he would vote against it.