Catchall spending bill advances in Senate
Washington • A bipartisan full-year funding bill took a big step forward in the Senate on Monday, despite opposition from Republicans who were denied chances to offer money aimed at addressing home state problems like looming closures of air traffic control towers.
The legislation advanced on a 63-35 procedural vote that sets up a vote on Tuesday to pass the measure and send it back to the House, which is likely to clear it later this week for President Barack Obama's signature. Ten Republicans, mostly members of the appropriations committee, joined with Democrats to send the measure over the 60-vote hurdle set by Republicans.
The sweeping 587-page measure would set a path for government in the wake of across-the-board spending cuts that took effect March 1 and prevent a government shutdown at the end of the month when funding for the day-to-day operations of every Cabinet department expires. It covers the rest of the 2013 budget year, which expires Sept. 30.
The measure gives the Pentagon much-sought money for military readiness but also adds money sought by Democrats and Republicans alike for domestic programs.
While top Senate leaders such as No. 1 Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada focused on the big picture preventing a government shutdown rank-and-file senators were sweating the small stuff, focusing on local concerns like keeping meat inspectors on the job, preventing furloughs at rural airports and trying to ease layoffs at Army depots.
The opposition was led by Republicans such as Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire denied a vote on an amendment shifting $360 million to military readiness and Jerry Moran of Kansas, who wants money to keep air traffic controllers at six small airports in his state.
There were also amendments proposed to add restrictions on U.S. aid to Egypt and re-open the White House to tours.
There had once been speculation that the measure could be a potential vehicle to turn off painful across-the-board spending cuts of 5 percent to domestic programs and 8 percent to the Pentagon but now much of the focus is on bread-and-butter issues as facilities back home begin to absorb the cuts.
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., is pressing to shore up accounts funding the salaries for contractors at Army facilities like the Tobyhanna Army Depot, which plans to lay off 418 civilian contract employees in the coming weeks, though the $60 million he's proposing to add would barely make a dent in the layoffs.
A particularly popular amendment by Sens. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., would shift $55 million from lower-priority Agriculture Department accounts to prevent furloughs of thousands of food inspectors. The meatpacking and poultry industries say the move is needed to prevent intermittent closure of 6,300 food-inspection plants, threatening more than 500,000 workers with nearly $400 million in lost wages.
Even that amendment had a two-steps-forward, one-step-back quality to it since the additional money would not fully make up for the money to be struck by the across-the-board cuts. That dynamic plays across the bill, with virtually every add-back failing to make up for the cuts.
"Without this funding, every meat, poultry, and egg processing facility in the country would be forced to shut down for up to two weeks," Blunt said in a statement. "That means high food prices and less work for the hardworking Americans who work in these facilities nationwide."
Democrats and Republicans are trying to reverse cuts that would close air traffic control towers at scores of smaller airports across the country, while supporters of military personnel want to restore funding for a Pentagon program that helps pay tuition so active military can attend college part time.
Monday's procedural vote means that Democrats can block further amendments when debate resumes on Tuesday.
The legislation cobbles together the detailed, line-by-line budgets for the Pentagon and several domestic Cabinet agencies, including the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Homeland Security and Justice. Such agencies would still be subject to across-the-board spending cuts known as a sequester but having their full budget bills in place would help them cope with the cuts.
The measure reflects 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 of Maryland for domestic programs such as the Head Start early education program, health research, and highway construction.
Democrats needed 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 Obama's health care reform as well as smaller requests for financial regulators to implement the 2010 Dodd-Frank law overhauling regulation of Wall Street and for the Internal Revenue Service to police tax returns.
Passage of the huge spending measure would draw to a close 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, paving the way for Congress to turn away from the current budget year and resume battling over the future.
That debate features sharply differing House GOP and Senate Democratic budget plans. House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the failed GOP vice presidential nominee, has resumed his role as top wonk and budget tutor.
The latest Ryan plan generally resembles prior ones, relying on higher tax revenues enacted in January and improved Medicare cost estimates along with $4.6 trillion in spending cuts over a decade to promise a balanced budget in 10 years.
The counter budget proposal from Senate Democrats would repeal the sequester cuts at a cost of $1.2 trillion over a decade and blends about $1 trillion in modest cuts to health care providers, the Pentagon, domestic agencies and interest payments on the debt with an equal amount in new revenue claimed by closing tax breaks. The net result would cut about $600 billion from the deficit over 10 years.