House passes spending bill, sets up Obama-GOP budget fight

House lawmakers on Tuesday approved a last-minute measure extending current levels of government funding through March 4. 

The vote — 193-165 — sends the year’s last piece of must-pass legislation to the White House and sets up a certain partisan battle early next year over federal spending, deficit reduction and whose priorities should rule the land.

The Senate approved the measure earlier on Tuesday in a 79-16 vote.

House GOP leaders have interpreted the lopsided midterm election results as evidence that voters want Congress to rein in government spending for the sake of the country's long-term solvency — a strategy outlined in broad strokes in the Republicans’ “Pledge to America.”  

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Democrats, meanwhile, argue a spike in deficit spending was the only reason the recent recession didn’t evolve into something much worse. They’re warning that a shift toward austerity, if it happens too abruptly, will exacerbate the nation's economic troubles at a time when unemployment is nearing 10 percent.

“Their idea of growing jobs is just to get out of the way,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday, referring to the Republicans' stimulus strategy. “We'll see what success they have.”

The ideological differences set the stage for continued partisan gridlock within a Congress that couldn't pass a traditional budget bill this year, even with Democrats holding a commanding majority in both chambers. Some congressional leaders have already sounded a warning about the clash.

“The early days of the next Congress,” said retiring Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), “will be extraordinarily confrontational and partisan."

The continuing resolution extends current funding for most federal programs, while freezing pay for non-military federal workers over the next two years. The current measure funding the government expires at midnight Tuesday.

The bill wasn't the Democrats' first choice. Earlier in the month, House Democrats had passed a continuing resolution providing funding at current levels through the rest of the fiscal year, while Senate leaders had attempted a $1.1 trillion omnibus bill providing $19 billion in funding above 2010 levels. Neither proposal could win the 60 votes needed to defeat a GOP filibuster in the Senate.

Obey, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee who was speaking on the floor for the last time after 42 years in Congress, slammed Senate Republicans for blocking those measures. The short-term funding bill, he said, forces the incoming Republican majority in the House to focus immediately on extending the budget, rather than working with the White House on longer-term solutions.

“If I were to vote my preference, I would vote no,” Obey said. 

Republicans, meanwhile, used Tuesday's vote to blast the Democratic majority for not passing separate appropriations bills. Rep. Jerry Lewis (Calif.), the senior Republican on the Appropriations panel, said House leaders “dithered away the year” on “insignificant” legislation. 

“We've named hundreds of post offices and praised every sports team in America,” Lewis said. “But the House has failed in completing its essential work — the work we were elected to do.”

Democratic leaders had hoped Tuesday's passage of the budget bill would be the last bit of business before the 111th Congress adjourns for the year. But both chambers will return Wednesday to consider legislation providing healthcare services for rescue workers who responded to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.


—This story was updated at 7:48 p.m.