WASHINGTON – The House voted Thursday to put the government on autopilot for six months, precluding a shutdown through the election and postponing a potential showdown on GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan's agency budget cuts until next spring when Republicans hope to hold more power in Washington.
Ryan returned to the Capitol from the campaign trail to vote for the half-year measure, even though it spends billions of dollars more than the Wisconsin lawmaker's budget plan, which has helped define the tight race for the White House.
The bipartisan 329-91 vote for the measure sends it to the Senate, which is expected to clear it next week for President Barack Obama's signature, capping a year of futility and gridlock despite a hard-fought budget deal last summer.
The measure funds the day-to-day operating budgets of Cabinet agencies that are financed annually by Congress through 12 appropriations bills. It would fund the government through March 27 and relieve lawmakers of the burden of trying to pass a catchall omnibus spending measure during a postelection lame duck session.
While taking the possibility of a government shutdown out of the equation, Thursday's measure leaves in place the so-called fiscal cliff – a combination of automatic spending cuts and tax hikes set to slam the economy in January. More than $100 billion in cuts to defense and domestic programs alike are looming as punishment for the failure of last year's deficit-reduction supercommittee to strike a follow-up bargain to last summer's debt and budget pact between Obama and Congress. The automatic cuts are set to hit at the same time that the Bush-era tax cuts, which were extended two years ago, are set to expire again.
Passage of the measure is likely to be Congress' last major act before lawmakers go home to campaign for re-election. Wrestling with how to avert the fiscal cliff is sure to dominate the lame duck session in November.
The temporary spending bill is needed to avert a government shutdown when the current budget year expires Sept. 30.
Thursday's vote represented a retreat by tea party Republicans since the stopgap measure permits spending at a pace that's $19 billion above the stringent budget plan authored by Ryan.
Instead, the measure permits spending at the higher budget "caps" permitted under last summer's hard-fought budget and debt deal between Obama and Capitol Hill Republicans. Typically, short-term spending bills freeze agency budgets at existing levels, but Thursday's measure actually would permit an across-the-board 0.6 percent increase, in keeping with the budget deal. It also maintains spending on domestic programs rather than shifting $8 billion from domestic programs to the Pentagon.
It is routine for Congress to require one or more temporary spending measures, known as continuing resolutions, because Congress invariably misses the deadline for completing the annual appropriations bills.
But this year the appropriations process has collapsed completely. While the House has managed to pass seven of the 12 spending bills, the Democratic-controlled Senate has failed to pass a single one, despite optimism earlier this year that last year's budget deal could pave the way to get the appropriations process back on track.
Democrats say the decision by House GOP leaders to abandon last year's budget pact is to blame because it set up a fundamental mismatch between the spending bills produced by the House and Senate Appropriations committees.
"This appropriations process was destined to fail from the start as Republicans chose to ignore the budget [deal's] statutory spending caps in favor of the unworkable caps in the Ryan budget," Rep. David Price, D-N.C., said.
Still, it was remarkable that the Senate didn't take up a single measure. Republicans said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was too busy teeing up votes to send political messages – while protecting vulnerable Democrats from difficult votes in relation to appropriations bills.
Even though it abandons the GOP budget, the six-month spending measure has backing from conservatives who want to avoid the prospect of an omnibus spending bill in the postelection lame duck session and who hope to have greater leverage next year.
"If you anticipate being in a better bargaining position in January," said Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J., "why go to the bargaining table in December?"
The measure would replenish disaster aid coffers, finance the food stamp program after it lapses on Sept. 30 and reauthorize for six months federal grants to states to run their welfare programs.
Just a handful of high-priority programs would be awarded larger increases, including an initiative to protect government computers from cyberattacks, wildfire suppression efforts, a drive to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal and processing of veteran disability claims. A popular initiative to repair the dome of the Capitol was left unfunded, however, despite a high-profile push by Senate Democrats.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., had preferred to do a shorter-term temporary spending bill in hopes of completing the appropriations bills in December as part of a catchall omnibus measure. Instead, the six-month measure means giving up months of work by the Appropriations committees.
"I think it's too bad because that's an awful lot of work that kind of went down the drain," said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho.
Also Thursday, the House approved a curiously-drafted bill that aims to turn off the $100 billion-plus in automatic spending cuts due to take effect Jan. 2.
But the measure, ambitiously titled "National Security and Job Protection Act," would only turn off the automatic cuts if Congress were to enact a separate package of big spending cuts. If Congress were to pass such a bill, of course, lawmakers would use that legislation to block the across-the-board cuts.