WASHINGTON (AP) — Passage in the Senate this week seems routine and could presage an end to a mostly overlooked battle between House Republicans and Obama and his Senate Democratic allies over the annual spending bills required to fund federal agency operations.
The measure expands upon House GOP legislation that passed last week, adding sometimes symbolic funding and flexibility for scores of programs and challenges House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who warned Democrats last week not to load the measure up too much.
But each of the additional items was drawn from earlier informal House-Senate agreements, and top Senate Appropriations Committee Republican Richard Shelby of Alabama has signed on.
The bipartisan measure comes as Washington girds for weeks of warfare over the budget for next year and beyond as both House and Senate Budget Committees this week take up blueprints for the upcoming 2014 budget year.
The first salvo in that battle is coming from House Republicans poised to release on Tuesday a now-familiar budget featuring gestures to block “Obamacare,” turn Medicare into a voucher-like program for future retirees and sharply curb Medicaid and domestic agency budgets. Such ideas are dead on arrival with Obama and Democrats controlling the Senate, but will — in concert with new taxes on the wealthy enacted in January — allow Republicans to propose a budget that would come to balance within 10 years.
“We think we owe the American people a balanced budget,” House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Senate Democrats are countering on Wednesday with a budget plan mixing tax increases, cuts to the Pentagon and relatively modest cuts to domestic programs. The measure would not reach balance, but it would undo automatic budget cuts that started taking effect this month and largely leaves alone rapidly growing benefit programs like Medicare.
“We need to make sure that everybody participates in getting us to a budget that deals with our debt and our deficit responsibly,” Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., said Monday evening.
The upcoming debate over the long-term budgetary future promises to be stoutly partisan, even as Obama is undertaking outreach to rank-and-file Republicans in hopes of sowing the seeds for a bipartisan “grand bargain” on the budget this year after two failed attempts to strike agreement with House Speaker John Boehner. Obama’s budget is already weeks overdue and Press Secretary Jay Carney deflected questions about it Monday, other than to promise that it would “for a period of time” bring deficits below 3 percent of gross domestic product, a measure that many analysts say is sustainable without damaging the economy.
The wrap-up spending bill for the half-completed fiscal year released Monday, however, is another matter entirely. It’s a lowest common denominator approach that gives the Pentagon much-sought relief for readiness accounts but adds money sought by Democrats like Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., for domestic programs such as Head Start, health research, transportation and housing.
The Senate measure would award seven Cabinet departments — including Defense, Commerce, justice, Agriculture and Veterans Affairs — with their line-by-line detailed budgets, but would leave the rest of the government running on autopilot at current levels. All domestic agencies except for Veterans Affairs would then be subject to a 5 percent across-the-board cut while the Pentagon would bear an 8 percent cut.
Mikulski needs GOP votes to pass the measure through the Senate, which Democrats control with 55 votes but where 60 votes are required for virtually every piece of substantive legislation. Using their leverage, Republicans have denied a White House request for almost $1 billion to help set up state health-care exchanges to implement Obamacare as well as smaller requests for financial regulators to implement the 2010 Dodd-Frank law overhauling regulation of Wall St. and for the IRS to police tax returns.
It is hoped that the pre-negotiated Senate measure could return to the House — which passed a different catchall spending bill last week — and pass through that chamber unchanged and be sent on to Obama well in time to avert a politically disastrous government shutdown.
House Republicans weighed in strongly and successfully against a proposal by Mikulski to give the Obama administration greater flexibility to transfer funds between accounts to cope with the across-the-board spending cuts, known as sequestration. By law, the across-the-board cuts are supposed to be taken in equal measure from front-line programs like air traffic control, meat inspection and the Border Patrol and lower-priority items such as agriculture research and subsidies for airline travel to rural airports.
Even as many Republicans attack the administration for choices such as ending White House tours or canceling early snow removal from Yellowstone National Park, Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee in particular fear that giving Obama greater flexibility would erode Congress’ control over the federal purse, which is enshrined in the Constitution and zealously guarded.
Thirty-eight Senate Republicans voted last month to give Obama significant flexibility to manage the automatic cuts, including Shelby and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.