WASHINGTON – A divided US Senate came together on Wednesday to approve legislation that avoids a government shutdown, with the compromise stopgap likely headed to the president's desk this week.
The so-called continuing resolution (CR) which funds day-to-day government operations through the remainder of the fiscal year that ends September 30, easily passed 73-26 after Senate leaders cut a deal on amendments to the legislation.
It allows senators to turn to the all-important debate over the 2014 budget, which began in earnest on the chamber's floor just minutes after the bill's passage. "This is a very good day for the Senate," Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid told his colleagues. "Legislation is the art of compromise."
Reid and his Republican counterpart, Senator Mitch McConnell, co-ordinated to break a logjam that threatened to delay the bill into next week's congressional recess, jeopardising the operations of government if President Barack Obama does not sign the legislation by March 27.
The CR now goes to the House, where aides said it was expected to pass as early as Thursday.
The Republican-led House took the lead earlier this month with its original bill that largely kept in place the effects of billions of dollars in automatic budget cuts.
The Senate did not overturn the cuts, retaining the five per cent budget pinch to domestic agencies and eight per cent slash to the Pentagon. It also kept the defence tweaks that the House included in its CR.
But in a bid to soften the blow, it re-arranged the spending allocations for a majority of government agencies, including the departments of justice, commerce and homeland security.
One adopted Senate amendment shifted some US$55 million to federal meat inspectors to ensure the continued operation of US food plants, which are required to shut down if there are no inspectors.
Another amendment aimed to keep air traffic control towers at rural airports financed under the budget cuts did not make it to the floor for a vote.
Senator John Cornyn, who voted for the CR along with 19 other fellow Republicans, acknowledged imperfections but said the measure "represents the first modest step toward reining in wasteful, Washington spending".
But Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican presidential prospect for 2016, criticised the measure for allowing Washington "to jump from one self-inflicted crisis to the next without actually solving any of our long-term job creation and debt challenges".
"I refuse to support new measures that are simply a short-term, short-sighted Band-Aid disguised as a solution," Rubio said in a statement.
The US government has been operating under CRs in recent years, with lawmakers in stalemate over the budget.
But with the Democratic-held Senate introducing a budget plan for the first time in four years, a contentious fiscal debate has begun, with political rivals clashing over their spending vision for the next decade.
The House this week is expected to pass a 2014 budget resolution put forward by Congressman Paul Ryan, last year's failed GOP vice presidential nominee, that slashes federal spending, reforms entitlements and insists on no new taxes.
Senate Democrats are pushing for what they describe as a balanced approach to deficit reduction, including targeted spending cuts and new tax revenue to help slash the $16 trillion national debt.
Ryan has argued his budget will balance within 10 years, while he and fellow Republicans blasted the Democratic plan as a tax-and-spend pipe dream that would not eliminate annual deficits.
"The Senate Democrat budget wouldn't balance, ever. Not in 2013. Not in 2023. Not in 3023," McConnell said on Wednesday. --AFP