The US Senate on Monday inched closer to passage of a bill to fund federal agencies through Sept. 30 and avoid a government shutdown at the end of this month, when existing money runs out.
Racing against a March 27 deadline, senators voted 63-35 to limit debate on the legislation so that it can be approved and sent to the US House of Representatives for final approval this week.
A US Senate vote on passage was expected as early as yesterday.
Just before the procedural vote, US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, frustrated by the slow pace, urged his colleagues to let the legislation move ahead.
“There is a big spotlight on the United States Senate to see if we can do something,” Reid said. “I’m asking senators here to give up a few things for the greater good.”
He was referring to the 125 or so time-consuming amendments that senators had circulated, which were slowing passage of the legislation.
Notably, the bill retains US$85 billion in controversial spending cuts that began on March 1. This is the first big installment on a 10-year, US$1.2 trillion deficit-reduction plan that has virtually every US agency worried.
As originally passed by the House, this short-term spending bill would give the Pentagon some flexibility in how it carries out its half of the US$85 billion in spending cuts.
Senate Democrats are trying to expand that flexibility to some non-defense government agencies.
With the Senate and House scheduled to begin a two-week spring break on Friday, the March 27 deadline effectively was moved up to the end of this week.
The US$85 billion in spending cuts were supposed to be applied evenly throughout the government and were intended to be so universally painful to Republicans and Democrats that they would find an alternative.
That has not yet happened and so lawmakers were resigned to the US$85 billion in cuts staying in place, but at the same time were using the short-term funding bill to try to protect programs important to their home states.
The Republican-controlled House this week was set to pass a budget aimed at erasing deficits by 2023 through deep cuts to social programs. The fiscal blueprint, crafted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, also would restructure healthcare for the elderly and disabled.
A large group of conservative Republicans on Monday unveiled their budget vision: growth in defense spending at the same pace as the Ryan budget, but deeper cuts to other domestic programs by freezing them at levels spent in 2008 for the next four years.
This alternative is not expected to pass the House. Neither is a House Democratic alternative, which aims to cancel the US$1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts and replace them with more targeted savings, while also spending US$200 billion for job creation.
Also this week, the Democratic-controlled Senate is expected to debate and pass its fiscal 2014 budget blueprint, claiming US$1.85 trillion in deficit-reduction over a decade through an equal mix of spending cuts and tax increases.
By late July or early August, Congress must confront the need to raise US borrowing authority or risk a first-ever government default.