Congress clears 2011 funding bill

Congress approved a measure Thursday to slash spending and fund the government through September, clearing the way for a raucous fight over the nation’s broader fiscal crisis.

The House voted 260-167 to approve the legislation, with 59 Republicans rejecting the bipartisan deal Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) struck with President Obama and Senate Democrats. 

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Eighty-one Democrats voted in favor of the deal — 108 split with Obama to oppose it.

The Senate signed off hours later on a vote of 81-19, sending the bill to Obama for his signature. The legislation, along with earlier stopgap measures, cuts $39.9 billion from current spending. Had it failed, funding for the federal government would have run out Friday night.

The bill’s passage marked a hard-fought but bruising victory for Boehner on his 100th day as Speaker. As conservatives began to sour on the deal, Boehner made an aggressive late push to defend it, appearing on right-leaning TV and radio shows and using large charts on the House floor to argue for its passage.

“Is it perfect? No. I’d be the first one to admit that it’s flawed,” Boehner said in a rare floor speech. “Well, welcome to divided government.”

In an indication of his personal investment in the bill, Boehner chose to cast his first vote as Speaker, breaking with the House tradition he has studiously followed for three months.

“The Speaker knows some members are going to take heat for this vote, and he wanted to let them know he was right there with them,” spokesman Michael Steel told The Hill.

Boehner cobbled together a strong majority of his party but still needed Democratic votes to pass the measure. He won help from Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) but not from Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.).

Pelosi kept her opposition secret until the last minute, but in the end she disavowed the agreement that Obama and Boehner struck without her involvement.

GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) contacted Hoyer, who agreed to help hold back Democratic votes in case the bill was in danger of failing, according to a congressional source. Dozens of Democrats waited until the end of the vote, registering their opposition only after it became apparent the bill would clear the House. 

The 59 Republicans who voted "no" represent one-third of the conference. Boehner’s office highlighted the fact that the Speaker earned support from 60 of the conference’s 87 GOP freshmen and more than two-thirds of members of the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC).

Still, there were notable defections. The chairman of the RSC, Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), opposed the bill, as did two subcommittee chiefs on the Appropriations Committee, Reps. Jack Kingston (Ga.) and Denny Rehberg (Mont.). A freshman representative on the leadership team, Rep. Tim Scott (S.C.), also voted no.

“It is what it is,” said Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling, the Republican conference chairman who supported the legislation. “I respect those who voted in the other direction. I understand their reasons. Everybody’s anxious. This is a nation that’s on the road to bankruptcy. I wish we could get it all done at once, but we didn’t get into this pickle overnight and we’re not going to get out of it overnight.”

As for the message that the 59 Republican no votes sent to Boehner, Hensarling said: “It tells him that people are very, very anxious to put the nation back on the road to fiscal sustainability.”

Supporters of the bill were tripped up after the Congressional Budget Office issued a report Wednesday finding that while the agreement cuts almost $40 billion in budget authority, the near-term reduction in the federal deficit is only about $352 million.

“There are some who claim the spending cuts in this bill aren’t ‘real,’ that they’re ‘gimmicks,’ ” Boehner said in his floor speech. “I just think it’s total nonsense. A cut is a cut. This bill will cut an estimated $315 billion over the next 10 years — the largest non-defense discretionary cut in the history of our country.”

Republican leaders sought immediately to shift attention to the bigger spending fights ahead, beginning with the expected passage Friday of the 2012 blueprint authored by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

“I am taking my $38 billion in savings. … I am saddling up and riding on to 2012 tomorrow,” freshman Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.) said. “I never wavered in my disappointment that we didn’t get more, and I never waver in my commitment to take what we can get.”

Conservatives who opposed the bill said it didn’t go far enough. 

“While I appreciate the hard work of the Speaker, I could not vote for this long-term continuing resolution,” RSC Vice Chairman Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) said. “Above all else, it does not even come close to cutting the appropriate amount of spending necessary to attack the fiscal crisis facing our country.”

As the debate wound down, supporters and opponents appeared to agree on one thing: nearly two months after the House first passed a 2011 spending bill, it was time to finally move on. 

“I just want this bill over with,” said Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, shortly before the vote.

Erik Wasson and Pete Kasperowicz contributed to this report.