Just weeks after Washington nearly went to war over automatic spending cuts, Congress scripted a peaceful ending to the clash Thursday as it backed the reductions while giving government managers flexibility to minimize the impacts on the public by finding the savings elsewhere in their budgets.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives approved the plan to finance the government for the rest of the fiscal year – with the sequester in place – by a 318-109 vote Thursday. A day earlier, the Democratic-run Senate passed the measure, 73-26. Most government agencies run out of money March 27; the votes will maintain spending at current levels through the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30.
While the $85 billion in automatic cuts that took effect March 1 will remain, programs involving homeland security, defense, agriculture, commerce, justice and science are likely to find slightly more funding for programs they regard as essential, such as food inspections, nutritional aid for low-income women and tuition assistance for members of the armed forces.
Sequestration cuts had threatened to suspend the tuition benefits, which allow active-duty military personnel to attend school part time. Instead, the Pentagon can now find savings elsewhere.
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Also approved was more funding for the National Institutes of Health, the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, and food safety inspections. The money will come from other programs, such as school equipment grants and building maintenance.
Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Mark Pryor, D-Ark., had warned that the unpaid furloughs of meat inspectors would force 6,300 plants to close temporarily during the proposed furlough days, causing half a million private-sector workers to lose nearly $400 million in wages. Federal law requires the presence of federal food inspectors in meat and poultry plants in order for them to operate.
“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 contended. “That means high food prices and less work for the hardworking Americans who work in these facilities nationwide.”
The stopgap budget agreement also served a political purpose. Nothing motivates politicians like fear of losing elections, and polls were clear: People were sick of Congress. Most lawmakers may have been re-elected five months ago, but the latest Gallup poll put Congress’ approval rating at 13 percent.
The roots of that dismal showing are in the crisis-to-crisis lurching that has dominated Congress in recent years: The last minute deal to avoid a historic default in 2011, the New Year’s Day agreement to avoid the fiscal cliff.
But also part of the political equation was a lack of serious constituent concern in many quarters about the sequester. A Gallup poll taken March 11-12, well after the cuts took effect, found 60 percent did not know if the sequester was good or bad for them personally.
To many constituents, the dire warnings President Barack Obama issued just before the onset of the cuts March 1 just didn’t come to pass. “The president really overshot the runway on this one,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. “If anything people wondered why we didn’t cut more.”
Congress on Wednesday had a loftier reason to move on. Efforts to make serious dents in the nation’s ballooning debt is going to take more than a few temporary deals – it means adopting a multi-year budget plan.
“There’s a sense in both parties that’s what we need to focus on, and move on to talk about policy issues,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
The Senate began debate late Wednesday, and will probably approve later this week, a Democratic 10-year budget plan. The Republican-run House of Representatives is considering its own very different blueprint.
No one expects the two versions to be reconciled anytime soon. But as Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, explained, the votes will show once and for all where everyone stands, laying the groundwork for serious negotiations this spring and summer.
While few are optimistic about those prospects, at least they’ve bought a few months of peace, and nowadays, that’s the biggest deal Congress has seen in some time.