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John Boehner (Associated Press/Photo by Alex Brandon)

Two-week reprieve

Congress | Congress averts a government shutdown and sends President Obama a short-term spending bill

WASHINGTON-In two overwhelming votes this week, Congress averted a shutdown showdown over the federal budget. But just for two more weeks.

The Senate on Wednesday agreed 91-9 in favor of an extension of federal spending through March 18. The short-term measure includes $4 billion in spending cuts and is identical to the bill passed 335-91 by the House on Tuesday.

The government was facing a March 4 shutdown-an event with political fallout for both parties that would extend through the 2012 presidential election. The last government shutdown, in 1995, lasted for a record 21 days and played a key factor in the 1996 election.

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President Barack Obama is expected to quickly sign this latest two-week extension, which marks the second budget stopgap needed for the current fiscal year that ends Sept. 30.

Congress has not agreed on a budget the last two years. Many lawmakers are frustrated with having to focus on last year's business.

"Here we go again, debating another continuing resolution," said Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont. "I'm starting to feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day."

Even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid acknowledged that this pattern is "a terrible way to govern."

This newest temporary measure cuts $4 billion by terminating eight programs already marked for elimination in Obama's proposal for the 2012 budget and by rescinding earmark funds.

This is easy money to eliminate, and that is why so many Democrats in both chambers approved the measure. A majority of House Democrats, 104 members, voted for the measure while their leader, Nancy Pelosi, voted against it.

If extended though what is left of the current fiscal year, the $2 billion a week in savings does match the $61 billion in cuts in the longer House budget measure that passed last week.

But that still was not good enough for some conservatives, particularly freshmen who came to Washington with strong Tea Party backing.

"While some have been patting themselves on the back for proposing $4 billion in so-called 'cuts,' in reality this bill fully funds billions upon billions of dollars in wasteful, duplicative programs that should be eliminated, reduced, or reformed," said freshman Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a founding member of the Tea Party Caucus, who went against Republican leadership and voted against the extension.

In reality, this week's votes only kick down the road a likely impasse between the Republican-led House and Democrat-led Senate over the final spending bill for 2011. Reid and other Senate Democrats spent last week bashing the deeper $61 billion in cuts over seven months approved by the House.

The attacks continued this week with Democrats touting a report by Mark Zandi, Moody's chief economist and former advisor to GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona, that the House budget would eliminate 700,000 jobs.

But Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke disagreed, predicting that the cuts would only have a marginal impact on growth.

With many in Washington concerned that two weeks is not enough time for lawmakers to agree on anything much less a budget, the White House on Tuesday pushed for a monthlong temporary spending measure.

But House Speaker John Boehner did not agree with the longer delay.

"If there had been a conversation about this 10 days ago or two days ago, we might have had something to talk about," he said, criticizing the White House's slowness in reaching out.

Reid also called on Obama to get more involved and "use the bully pulpit at the White House."

When pushed by reporters for why he didn't favor a four-week stopgap spending measure, Boehner answered: "If ands and buts were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas."

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is WORLD's Washington Bureau chief. As a reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, he was embedded with a National Guard unit in Iraq. He also once worked in the press office of Sen. Lamar Alexander.

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