WASHINGTON – The Senate moved ahead Wednesday toward a vote on a huge, bipartisan spending bill aimed at keeping the government running through September and ruling out the chance of a government shutdown later this month.
Chamber leaders announced Wednesday afternoon that a logjam that has stalled the bill since Tuesday had been broken and that the measure would pass by late afternoon and return to the House, where a vote on Thursday would send it to President Barack Obama for his signature.
A vote was scheduled on an amendment by Tom Coburn, R-Okla., that is aimed at shifting money within the National Park Service to try to make sure the White House remains open to tours. But even if it's approved, the amendment would appear to fail to accomplish its goal since the reason for closing the White House tours were cuts to the Secret Service, not the Park Service.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., obtained a vote on an amendment — eagerly sought by the meatpacking and poultry industries — that would offer them relief from food inspector furloughs that threaten to intermittently shutter plants.
The measure would fund the day-to-day operating budgets of every Cabinet agency through Sept. 30, provide another $87 billion to fund overseas military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and maintain a pay freeze for federal workers.
The measure gives the Pentagon much-sought relief from a cash crunch in accounts for training and readiness, gives veteran health programs their scheduled increases and sets the detailed, line-by-line budgets for agencies such as Commerce, NASA, Agriculture and Justice.
The measure leaves in place automatic budget cuts of 5 percent to domestic agencies and 8 percent to the Pentagon. The cuts have largely been unnoticed by the public but are making lawmakers uncomfortable, especially as intermittent layoffs known as furloughs begin to take effects next month.
The fear of those furloughs compromising safety at 173 airports slated to lose their air traffic controllers led Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., to seek to restore funding to prevent the layoffs. He was denied an attempt to amend the measure, which led him to drag out debate. But Moran relented rather than to deny other senators from winning votes on amendments.
Democrats have generally resisted efforts to fix the automatic cuts on an ad hoc basis, arguing that the so-called sequester needs to be replaced in its entirety as part of a broader budget deal.
The developments in the Senate come as the House resumed debate on the budget for next year and beyond. Republicans are pushing a plan that promises sharp cuts to federal health care programs and domestic agency operating budgets as the price for balancing the budget in a decade. That plan, by Budget Committee chairman and failed GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, also contains a hotly contested provision calling for transformation of Medicare for beneficiaries born in 1959 and after into a program that subsidizes health insurance premiums instead of directly paying hospital and doctor bills.
The House was set to consider a set of alternative budgets from the left and right on Wednesday before voting on the GOP plan on Thursday. The Senate was expected to begin debate of the budget Wednesday in hopes of a vote on Friday.