WASHINGTON – US lawmakers approved a funding stopgap on Thursday that prevents a government shutdown, but their clash over budget blueprints signalled a contentious debate over the future of federal spending.
A trio of key votes bookended the action in Congress ahead of a two-week congressional recess, the most urgent one being on the so-called continuing resolution, a US$1.2 trillion appropriations measure that will keep the doors of federal agencies open through September, the end of the fiscal year.
The Senate passed the measure on Wednesday, and with the House following suit and making no changes, it now heads to President Barack Obama's desk for his signature.
The CR locks in the $85 billion in automatic spending cuts mandated by the so-called sequester, although it cushions the blow by providing some flexibility within the Pentagon and other departments to make more targeted, less reckless cuts.
Obama must sign the CR into law by March 27 or the US government will go into partial shutdown.
With 2013 funding largely resolved, lawmakers turned immediately to the impasse over future government spending, as well as the looming battle over raising the country's borrowing cap.
The House passed the plan crafted by Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman and last year's failed Republican vice presidential nominee, along a mostly party-line vote, 221 to 207.
"We've done the hard work of bringing this plan forward," House Speaker John Boehner told members on the floor.
All US budget blueprints are essentially political messaging documents, leaders on both sides acknowledged on Thursday.
Still, 10 Republicans voted against the Ryan plan. And when it was brought to a vote in the Democratically-led Senate, it was rejected 40-59, with five Republicans opposed, potentially weakening the Republican bargaining hand during upcoming negotiations.
The Ryan blueprint aims to balance the budget over the next 10 years, but Democrats denounce it as a recipe for a decade of austerity marked by slow economic growth and dramatic cuts to social programmes, education and training.
It would slash federal spending, reform entitlements and repeal Obama's landmark healthcare law. It also insists on no new taxes, despite aiming to pare down the $16 trillion national debt.
Chris Van Hollen, top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, criticized the Ryan plan as "an uncompromising ideological approach to our budget issues."
The Democrats introduced their own budget this week for the first time in four years, and with the Ryan plan rejected, the blueprint by Senate Budget Committee chair Patty Murray could be voted on as early as Friday.
Murray is pushing what she says is a balanced approach to deficit reduction, including targeted spending cuts and new tax revenue.
"The House Republicans have doubled down on the failed policies" that lost them the 2012 election Murray said.
An ideological battle is brewing, with House minority leader Nancy Pelosi accusing Ryan of seeking to line the pockets of the wealthy by hollowing out programs for seniors and the poor like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
Pelosi said she was ready to discuss ways to strengthen such entitlements, but warned: "If your goal, though, is to have them wither on the vine or be reduced in a way that does not meet their purpose, then them's fighting words."
Boehner hinted that a battle over the debt ceiling loomed too, saying the only way the House would raise the ceiling before it is reached in May would be if Obama agreed to an equal amount in spending cuts. -- AFP