House passes bill to avert government shutdown in March

The House on Wednesday approved legislation that would avert a government shutdown in a 267-151 vote, despite opposition from Democrats who complained that the measure locks in the $85 billion sequester.

Fifty-three Democrats supported the bill, likely because it will help avoid a shutdown. Fourteen Republicans voted against it.

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The bill now goes to the Senate, which is expected to make additions to the bill and try to send it back to the House before March 27, when funding for the government runs out. The bill would keep the government running through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

The vote came after a 212-197 vote on the rule for the bill, which 16 Republicans opposed. That 15-vote margin was extremely narrow; 17 Democrats didn’t vote on the rule and might have tipped that result if they had.

The debate and vote show that Democrats will continue to argue for an immediate solution to the sequester.

However, Republicans argued that the Democratic Senate has failed to pass any bill at all to replace the spending cuts and that President Obama has not put forward any solution other than one that includes new tax increases.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said that, in the meantime, Congress must deal with the reality of the sequester. He and other Republicans cast the bill as one that would keep the government running while this debate plays out.

“While we’re waiting for the Senate to send us a bill relieving us of sequestration, while we’re waiting for the president to send us something to relieve us of sequestration, we have no choice but to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government operating,” Rogers said.

Senate Democrats are still planning to discuss their approach to the continuing resolution at a Thursday caucus meeting, a Senate Democratic aide said Wednesday.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and ranking member Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) continued negotiation Wednesday on what could be added to the bill.

Mikulski is looking at least to add several entire appropriations bills, already worked out behind the scenes with House Republicans.

Those bills would cover the departments of Commerce, Justice, Transportation, Housing, Homeland Security and the science agencies, the aide said.

Earlier in the House debate, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) made it clear that while Republicans are open to talks about shifting the cuts around, they have no interest in replacing them with new taxes.

“These are cuts, and they are going to occur,” Cole said. “But we’ve repeatedly told our friends and the president and the Senate that we would be more than happy to redistribute where the cuts are going to occur.”

Democrats ignored these arguments and said that by passing the bill, Republicans seemed to be favoring the sequester.

They even made a procedural motion to strike language locking sequestration into place, but that was rejected in a partisan vote.

Several Democrats, like Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), reiterated that by locking in the sequester, the bill would cut billions of dollars in programs and lead to possible delays in implementation of the 2010 healthcare law.

“This bill will delay implementation of the Affordable Care Act, scheduled to begin enrolling participants in October,” she said. “Without IT [information technology] infrastructure to process enrollments and payments, verify eligibility and establish call-in centers, health insurance for million of Americans would be further delayed.”

Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) went further, saying that by including language requiring the sequester, the bill violates the bargain struck in 2011 between Republicans and Democrats to set specific discretionary spending caps.

That cap was set at $1.043 trillion, but Hoyer said: “That is not what this bill does. It breaks the deal.”

The Congressional Budget Office scored the bill as providing $984 billion in discretionary spending, because it takes into account the sequester by calling for across-the-board reductions to most programs.

The bill is a continuing resolution for most federal agencies, but for the Defense Department (DOD) and Department of Veterans Affairs, it includes a full appropriations bill. That language gives the DOD some flexibility in dealing with the sequester, by shifting $10.4 billion to the operations and maintenance budget.

The bill tries to cushion the effects of sequestration in some non-military areas.

It adds $2 billion for embassy security in the wake of last September’s attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and provides $363 million more for nuclear security and $129 million more for FBI salaries, among other things.

It also includes other policy mandates, including a prohibition on the use of funds to move Guantánamo Bay detainees to the United States and a freeze on federal worker pay.

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