Rest easy, America: Congress is going to make sure the government doesn't shut down just after Easter – even though you've got to continue living under the sequester.
The Senate passed what's known as a "continuing resolution" on Wednesday night by a vote of 73 to 26, with all but one Democrat joining 19 Republicans. The measure would keep government operations running from March 27 until the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. That gives Washington time to have a robust debate about deficits, entitlement reform, and taxes as part of the negotiations over next fiscal year's budget.
The House of Representatives is expected to take up and pass the continuing resolution Thursday afternoon.
While the bill left the automatic, across-the-board spending reductions known as the "sequester" in place, a bipartisan team of legislators in both chambers deftly handled the measure so that it did not turn into a political conflagration and threaten a government shutdown.
"This is pretty good to show that we can work in a bipartisan basis, that we can actually govern, and that we can conduct ourselves with decourm," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland, the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee who shepherded the bill through the Senate, on the Senate floor after the bill's passage. "For all who watched the debate here in the last week, they saw civility, they saw sensibility."
The process began when House Republicans led by Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, passed a government funding measure that updated the budgets for the Defense Department, veterans affairs, and military construction. Because Congress has failed to pass many appropriations bills in recent years, many government agencies are running under budgets that are out-of-date.
By updating spending priorities, then, House Republicans were able to reallocate resources to better uses without raising the politically messy issue of altering the sequester, which began falling across nearly all government priorities on March 1.
To the House bill, Senator Mikulski and the top Republican member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, added updated budgets for other federal departments, including Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Homeland Security, as well as government science spending.
Senate leaders also allowed a handful of slight tweaks to the bill, such as a bipartisan amendment brought by Sen. Roy Blunt (R) of Missouri and Sen. Mark Pryor (D) of Arkansas that will keep food inspectors on the job.
All the while, Mikulski and Senator Shelby stayed in close contact with both Senate and House leaders to ensure the final package would be able to be taken up whole by the House before both chambers leave Friday for the two-week home work period around the Easter holiday.
The orderly, assiduously bipartisan process was a stark departure from the teeth-gritting budget negotiations of years gone by, where Republicans would use the need to extend government funding or to raise the debt ceiling as a point of leverage against Democrats.
But even so, many Republicans opposed the bill because some, like Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, dug up a handful of spending they found wasteful but could not get expunged from the final legislation.
Given the scope of the legislation, plenty of lawmakers were frustrated by being unable to offer amendments of interest to their state.
Sen. Jerry Moran (R) of Kansas slowed consideration of the entire measure for more than a day in what turned into a vain attempt to force a vote on his preferred amendment, which would have helped shield some air traffic controllers at rural airports from being cut. Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio opposed the measure in part because he'd rather NASA invest in existing facilities – including two in Ohio – than build new ones.
By giving Congress six months of running room, many lawmakers in both chambers have expressed the hope that Congress will return to the "regular order" of passing the 12 individual appropriations bills needed to update funding for all government spending in the months to come rather than risk another government shutdown fight come the fall.
"Passing government funding through the end of the fiscal year and averting yet another crisis at the end of the month is a responsible decision and another sign that both parties are ready to embrace an orderly process," said Sen. Tim Kaine (D) of Virginia in a statement. "I look forward to our next chance to put the old governing by crisis playbook to rest."
But beyond the bill's bipartisan legacy, it also locked in the cuts from the sequester – something President Obama vowed would not happen on the campaign trail and up until several months ago congressional Republicans were committed to replacing.
And actual spending reductions, even if achieved in a less-than-optimal, across-the-board fashion, were worth cheering by Republicans on both sides of Capitol Hill.
"Many times in Washington something that is called a spending cut isn't actually a cut; it just means spending is growing more slowly than it did the year before," said Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, a leading advocate of a sweeping "grand bargain" to the nation's fiscal predicament, in a statement. "This continuing resolution is significant because it contains real cuts. Total discretionary spending for this fiscal year will actually be lower than last fiscal year – and in Washington, that's a good first step."