Senate avoids shutdown, looks to wrap up budget soon

The Senate on Wednesday approved legislation to prevent a government shutdown and set up a series of votes on what would be the first Senate Democratic budget in four years. 

In a 73-26 vote, the Senate approved a $984 billion continuing resolution that will keep the government funded through the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30. Twenty-five Republicans voted against the measure, along with Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). 

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The bill is similar enough to a House version that it is expected to swiftly pass the House Thursday and reach President Obama’s desk before federal agencies are set to close on March 28, when the current stopgap funding bill runs out.

The measure includes the $85 billion in automatic spending cuts known as sequestration. 

In finishing its work on the funding measure on Wednesday, the Senate also improved its chances of concluding work on its budget before the weekend. 

The budget debate, which at the start of Wednesday looked set to drag into the weekend, now appears likely to wrap up late Friday or early Saturday morning.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had warned senators that they would stay in Washington until they finished the budget. Republicans had been holding up a vote on the funding measure — and thus work on the budget — to win consideration of certain amendments.

The majority leader frequently threatens to keep the Senate in session on the weekend, but rarely follows through. However, the threats this week were seen as realistic given his determination to not go into the recess without a budget.

Reid announced a deal with Republicans on the funding measure that allowed votes on several amendments but also moved the schedule along. Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) dropped their insistence on continuing debate into Thursday. The two were unhappy that Reid was not allowing votes on their amendments. 

In order to expedite debate on the budget, Democrats are likely to surrender some of their own time to allow an amendment “vote-a-rama” to begin Friday morning, aides said.

Senators will not be paid after April 15 if a budget is not passed, and procedural foot-dragging after the recess could have made that an embarrassing reality. 

In addition, Reid is eager to move onto gun and immigration legislation after the recess.

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The funding measure approved by the Senate is different from the one approved by the House. 

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and ranking member Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) added three full appropriations measures to the House version, but retained the funding levels of the House bill.

While the House’s measure funded Defense, Military Construction and Veterans Affairs programs, the Senate version adds specific appropriations for Agriculture, Homeland Security and Commerce, Justice and Science funds.

Several amendments were added to the Senate bill, including measures to prevent cuts to tuition assistance to members of the military and to ensure food inspectors are not furloughed.

In a 45-54 vote, the Senate rejected an amendment to the continuing resolution from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) that would have provided funds to reopen the White House to public tours.

It would have restored funding by shifting money from a Heritage Area account that the administration had targeted for spending reductions.

The White House announced earlier this month that it would be forced to stop public White House tours in order to cut costs because of the sequester. Republicans have criticized the decision, saying it politicized the sequester cuts by making them hurt American families during the busy D.C. tourist season.