Congress Moves Ahead on Avoiding Shutdown; Budget Battle Brews

Wednesday, 20 Mar 2013 05:22 PM

 

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The U.S. Senate Wednesday passed legislation to avoid a partial government shutdown, in a rare example of bipartisan cooperation on federal spending.

The chamber voted 73-26 to forward on to the House a measure that would keep agencies’ lights on through Sept. 30, the end of the 2013 fiscal year. Republicans there probably will clear it for President Barack Obama’s signature. Legislation currently funding the executive branch expires March 27, and without action by Congress, agencies would begin running out of money.

“This is a very good day for the Senate,” said Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat. “Legislation is the art of compromise.”

The bipartisan vote clears the way for what is sure to be a much more partisan debate over the Senate Democrats’ budget for the 2014 fiscal year. House Republicans have begun debating Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s latest tax-and-spending plan, which calls for eliminating the deficit within a decade.

The Senate will take up a competing plan that is mostly focused on fixing the $1.2 trillion sequestration that began earlier this month. It would replace the automatic cuts with a combination of tax increases on the wealthy and cuts in defense, agriculture and other spending. If approved, it would be the Senate’s first budget since 2009.

Meat Inspectors

Wednesday’s bipartisan vote came after lawmakers adopted an amendment aimed at preventing furloughs of government meat inspectors triggered by sequestration. The bill shifts $55 million to the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to help it avoid having to pull inspectors from meatpacking plans barred from operating without daily federal oversight.

“The federal workers who inspect meat and poultry are critical not only to our nation’s food security, but to the economic stability of many of our rural communities,” said Senator Christopher Coons, a Delaware Democrat. “Backlogs in food inspections could result in the shutdown of processing facilities and send devastating ripple effects through rural communities and straight to the shelves of every market and grocery in the country.”

The bill offers some other programs modest funding increases, which may help them absorb the blow of sequestration. It would provide for example an additional $10 billion for the Pentagon’s “operations and maintenance” accounts, which pay to train troops, maintain weapons and other daily operations.

WIC Money

It also includes an additional $250 million for the Women, Infants and Children program, which provides nutritional assistance to low-income mothers. That may take some of the sting out of a roughly $350 million cut under sequestration. In many cases, though, the additional funding is a small fraction of what has been cut by sequestration. The National Institutes of Health, the government’s medical research arm, would receive a $71 million increase, even as it takes a $1.5 billion sequestration hit.

Democrats had sought to include a provision making it easier for agencies to rework their budgets to accommodate sequestration, which Republicans opposed because they said it would usurp the power of Congress to control spending.

In all, the measure would provide $1.043 trillion in non-emergency funding, though sequestration will reduce that to about $984 billion. The bill also includes about $100 billion in “emergency” war-related money.

The measure also would extend a pay freeze for federal workers and fund efforts to restore the Capitol’s cast-iron dome, one of the oldest such structures in the world.

It also would provide a $193,400 “bereavement payment” to the wife of the late Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye, a Democrat who died in December. It’s a tradition in Congress to provide one year’s salary to the survivor of a lawmaker who dies in office.

The bill is H.R. 933.

© Copyright 2014 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.

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