Fri, Mar 04, 2011 - Page 7 News List

Bill averts US Congress shutdown

CRISIS DELAYED:A stopgap spending bill that includes US$4 billion in noncontroversial cuts passed by the Senate will keep the US government running another two weeks

Reuters, WASHINGTON

The US Congress on Wednesday sent US President Barack Obama a stopgap spending bill that averts an imminent government shutdown, but does nothing to resolve a bitter debate over the federal budget.

By a vote of 91 to nine, the US Senate overwhelmingly passed a two-week funding bill that cleared the US House of Representatives on Tuesday. Obama is expected to sign the measure, which includes US$4 billion in relatively noncontroversial cuts, into law before current funding expires today.

The bill keeps the government running until March 18, which lawmakers say is probably not enough time to find common ground between the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic--controlled Senate on a longer-term bill to fund government operations through September.

That means Congress will likely return to its game of brinkmanship even as lawmakers begin work on next year’s budget, consider reform of tax laws and the massive government healthcare and pension programs, and gird for an unpleasant vote to raise the government’s borrowing authority.

“We cannot keep doing business this way,” Obama said in a statement. “Living with the threat of a shutdown every few weeks is not responsible and it puts our economic progress in jeopardy.”

House Republicans, spurred on by the “Tea Party” conservatives who swept them into power last November, passed a budget bill last month that would immediately slash US$61 billion from a wide range of domestic programs.

Democratic Senator Charles Schumer called that plan “unacceptable” and a “nonstarter” at a news conference after the Senate vote.

US Vice President Joe Biden will lead negotiations in the coming weeks as Democrats craft a budget bill of their own, the White House said. Those discussions could rope in the debt ceiling and entitlements like Medicare, which lie beyond the reach of the yearly budget process and account for more than half of all federal spending, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said.

The Republican proposal, which would impose cuts averaging 25 percent on many government agencies, would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs at a time when the unemployment rate remains stuck at 9 percent, US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told a House committee.

Both parties have acknowledged the need to tame a budget deficit that is projected to hit a record US$1.65 trillion this year, equal to 10.9 percent of the economy, but Democrats warn that slashing spending too quickly will endanger the country’s shaky economic recovery.

Leaders from both parties have said they do not want to shut down the government, which would furlough hundreds of thousands of federal workers, close national parks and bankruptcy courts and other “nonessential” services.

Voters largely blamed the Republicans for the last series of budget-related shutdowns in 1995 and 1996, but recent polls suggest that neither party would emerge a clear winner this time — or even whether the public would mind that much.

A Quinnipiac University poll found that 46 percent of voters believed a government shutdown would be a good thing, while 44 percent thought it would be bad. Most Democratic voters opposed a shutdown and most Republicans favor it, the poll found.

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