Senate passes spending bill, averts shutdown

McClatchy Washington BureauJanuary 16, 2014 

— The Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday to approve a $1.1 trillion federal spending plan, a peaceful and bipartisan truce after years of bitter feuding over the government’s role and reach.

The 72-26 vote sends the bill to President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign it. It came a day after the House of Representatives also gave the budget strong bipartisan backing.

This burst of partisan cooperation may not last. But for a moment at least it suggested that a Congress facing historically dismal approval ratings has heard its constituents’ message: Stop all the partisan battles, find common ground and do your job.

The bill goes line by line listing how taxpayer money will be spent between now and Sept. 30 on discretionary items, or those that Congress and the White House can directly affect annually. It does not include entitlements such as Social Security benefits, which are automatically adjusted.

About half the new spending plan’s funds will go to defense and half to domestic programs. Senators routinely complained Thursday that their favorite programs were shortchanged.

A handful went further, maintaining the whole package is an irresponsible abrogation of their duty to rein in the federal deficit. The package “does nothing to restore economic growth, stop Obamacare or fix our spending problem,” protested Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

The prevailing mood, though, was one of acquiescence. “It is certainly far better than the alternative, which would be another confrontation, another government shutdown, and another giant step further away from establishing some sense of regular order,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., considered a strong fiscal conservative.

For the last three years, conservatives insisted budgets be crafted so that deficits would plunge and domestic spending would be dramatically curbed. They also wanted to alter Obama administration policies, notably a weakening or defunding of the Affordable Care Act.

Democrats control 55 of the Senate’s 100 seats, and they were not about to bleed domestic programs or end Obamacare. That led to a series of standoffs, culminating in last fall’s 16-day partial government shutdown.

The shutdown proved politically devastating. Congress’ approval rating hit 9 percent in November’s Gallup poll and has since inched up to only 13 percent. Gallup also found 42 percent identified themselves as independents last year, many embarrassed to align themselves with political parties.

The sullen constituent mood triggered a bipartisan agreement in December on a framework for a fiscal 2014 and 2015 budget.

“In today’s era of shutdowns, slowdown, slam-down politics, where negotiating occurs on cable TV rather than in committee rooms, we worked together, setting aside partisan differences,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said during Thursday’s Senate debate.

She and other negotiators this week produced a 1,582-page spending plan, and they will soon begin work on a similar blueprint for fiscal 2015, which begins Oct. 1.

The bill had enough for lawmakers to go home – they’re leaving Washington Friday for a 10-day recess – and boast. Head Start, which helps early childhood education, got significantly more funding. So did efforts to beef up border security and veterans’ job training. Federal and military employees got a 1 percent pay raise.

Obamacare survived, but Republicans won a concession or two as some funding was cut, probably not enough to be noticed.

Whether the agreement will mean enduring political peace is uncertain. The next big fiscal struggle this winter and spring will involve an increase in the debt limit.

Republicans have vowed to attach some measure to any legislation that would put some kind of restrictions on spending. Democrats and the White House have said they won’t accept any such strings.

Congress last year extended the ability to borrow but limited it to a period that runs out on Feb. 7. If there is no agreement on an extension then, the Treasury Department could take extraordinary measures to move around government funds to pay the debts due, but it would run out of room around mid-March.

Economists and Wall Street leaders warn that defaulting on government bonds, even if a voluntary move, would deeply damage the creditworthiness of the United States and could spark financial panic and unintended consequences. But to date, there is also no compromise in sight.

Lawmakers had better be careful, because the polls say Americans are tired of bickering – they want real problems eased.

“The wounds from past years will take time to heal,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. “American voters are still in a very grumpy mood.”

Kevin G. Hall of the Washington Bureau contributed.

Email: dlightman@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @lightmandavid

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