US House OKs bill to avoid government shutdown
WASHINGTON - Agence France-Presse
U.S. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) (3rd L) gives a thumbs up to reporters as he and Senators Ron Johnson (R-WI) (2nd L), Pat Toomey (R-PA) (4th R), Richard Burr (R-NC) (3rd R, back to camera) and Bob Corker (R-TN) (2nd R, obscured) depart after a private dinner with U.S. President Barack Obama at a hotel near the White House in Washington March 6, 2013. REUTERS PhotoThe Republican-controlled House of Representatives approved legislation Wednesday to prevent a U.S. government shutdown on March 27 and blunt the impact of deep spending cuts on the Defense Department.
The measure was then sent to the Senate, where Democrats who control the upper chamber hope to give other departments similar flexibility in implementing their shares of the $85 billion in automatic spending cuts that threaten the economy’s fragile recovery.
Republicans said the measure was essential to keep the government operating smoothly after funding expires on March 27.
The Obama administration and congressional Republicans have been working together to ease the impact of the across-the-board spending cuts that must take effect by the end of the budget year on Sept. 30.
The overall size of the cuts remains in place, with half from defense and half from domestic programs. But the new legislation gives the Pentagon and the Veterans Affairs Department flexibility to allocate cuts.
Senate Democrats seem likely to agree to the flexibility if it can be expanded to include other agencies, according to several officials who described closed-door talks that involved the White House. Among the candidates are the departments of Homeland Security, Transportation, Justice and State. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to disclose details.
The move marks a reversal for President Barack Obama, who spoke dismissively in recent days of Republican plans for flexibility in administering the cuts.
"You don’t want to have to choose between, Let’s see, do I close funding for the disabled kid or the poor kid? Do I close this Navy shipyard or some other one?" he said Feb. 26.
The cuts were designed to be so blunt and controversial that the Obama administration and a bitterly divided Congress would be forced to come up with an alternative for trimming the country’s deficit.
They didn’t, which now leaves federal agencies with the challenge of chopping the same rough percentage of their budgets, no matter their priority or efficiency.
Agency heads lined up for weeks to warn about the possible consequences. The military was the most vocal.
Pentagon officials have embraced the idea of budget flexibility.
The difference for the Navy is "almost night and day," Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, told Congress on Tuesday. The Pentagon did not immediately say whether it also would be able to order the USS Harry S. Truman to the Persian Gulf region, a mission it announced earlier would fall victim to the cuts.
In another sign of efforts at bipartisanship, Obama hosted Republican senators for dinner at the White House on Wednesday. Obama had a good exchange of ideas with lawmakers, a White House official said after the dinner. Sen. John McCain, who was Obama’s 2008 opponent and among the guests, told a reporter that the meal went "just fine."
The unusual gathering served as prelude to at least two trips to the Capitol in coming days as the chief executive meets with the rank and file of both parties in both houses.
Obama’s requests for meetings next week were confirmed by House Speaker John Boehner’s office and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office, which said Obama last attended the Senate Republicans’ policy lunch in May 2010.
But McConnell, Boehner and other members of the Republican leadership were left out of Wednesday’s dinner with Obama. They also didn’t make the list of Republican lawmakers Obama started calling over the weekend.
White House aides say the calls focus in part on jumpstarting broader budget talks, but also on Obama’s proposals for overhauling the nation’s immigration laws and enacting stricter gun control measures.
"He is reaching out and talking to members about a variety of issues - not just our fiscal challenges, but certainly the fiscal issues are among the issues he is talking about with lawmakers," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.