US Senate votes $85 billion cuts, averts shutdown

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Associated Press

Posted on March 20, 2013 at 6:01 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate approved a huge spending bill to keep the government open through the end of September, preventing a shutdown next week but locking in $85 billion in budget cuts that will mean job furloughs for hundreds of thousands of federal workers.

The bipartisan 73-26 vote in the Democratic-controlled Senate sends the measure to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which is expected to approve it on Thursday and ship it to President Barack Obama for his signature.

The vote represented a rare thawing of the partisan gridlock gripping Washington and cleans up the unfinished business of Congress for the long-underway 2013 budget year. Although the bill ensures there will be no interruption of routine government funding, more battles over future spending loom ahead.

The legislation provides $982 billion for federal agencies to remain in operation through the Sept. 30 end of the budget year. It provides $87 billion funding for overseas military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and maintains a pay freeze for federal workers.

The measure gives the Pentagon much-sought relief from a cash crunch in accounts for training and readiness and gives veteran health programs their scheduled increases.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress have struggled with two goals in approving the spending bill — preventing the government shutdown and trying to ease the impact of in across-the-board spending cuts that kicked in earlier this month. Those cuts were set in motion when the White House and Congressional Republicans couldn't agree on a better plan for addressing the U.S. deficit. Republicans insisted on a plan that includes spending cuts alone, while Democrats demanded tax increases.

If the House goes along with the Senate bill, as expected, that means the automatic budget cuts, vigorously decried by Obama last month, will remain in effect for the rest of the fiscal year through Aug. 31.

Some adjustments will be made. Federal meat inspectors were spared furloughs, for example, as lawmakers in both parties alternately clashed and cooperated over proposals to take the edge off the cuts.

That was a departure from the administration's general position that flexibility should ease all the cuts or none at all.

The overall legislation locks in the $85 billion in spending cuts through the end of the budget year, yet provides several departments and agencies with flexibility in coping with them. It extends flexibility to the Pentagon, the departments of Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, Justice, State and Commerce and the Food and Drug Administration.

But bipartisanship has its limits, and in private negotiations Republicans rejected Democratic attempts to provide flexibility for the rest of the government.

Without changes, the $85 billion in cuts for the current year will swell to nearly $1 trillion over a decade, levels that lawmakers in both parties say are unsustainable politically. As a result, negotiations are possible later in the year to replace the reductions with different savings to restrain surging federal deficits.

The Senate pointedly rejected a call to reopen White House tours that the Obama administration says had to be canceled because of the cuts.

Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican deficit hawk, said he wanted to reopen the White House tours, shut down since earlier in the month, and keep national parks open.

White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters previously the decision the cancel the White House tours was made by the Secret Service because "it would be, in their view, impossible to staff those tours; that they would have to withdraw staff from those tours in order to avoid more furloughs and overtime pay cuts."

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