Congress okays budget stopgap, broader battle begins
US lawmakers approved a funding stopgap to keep the US government operating through September and took a step towards adopting a blueprint for a decade of budget austerity.
The two votes came in rapid-fire succession in the House of Representatives ahead of a two-week congressional recess.
The more urgent vote was the so-called continuing resolution, or CR, a US$1.2 trillion (HK$9.3 trillion) appropriations bill that will keep the doors of federal agencies open through the remainder 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.
Obama must sign the CR into law by March 27 or the US government will go into partial shutdown.
With this year funding largely resolved, lawmakers turned immediately to the contentious debate over future government spending, as well as the looming battle over raising the country’s borrowing cap.
The House passed the budget 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.
The Ryan blueprint aims to balance the budget over the next 10 years.
It would slash federal spending, reform entitlements and repeal Obama’s landmark healthcare law. It will also insist on no new taxes, despite aiming to pare down the US$16 trillion (HK$124.2 trillion) national debt.
But Democrats blasted the measure, warning it would slow economic growth and dramatically cut funding to key social programs, education and training
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, who control the Senate and will be able to block the Ryan plan in the upper house, introduced their own budget this week for the first time in four years.
They are pushing what they say is a balanced approach to deficit reduction, including targeted spending cuts and new tax revenue.
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 was looming as well, 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.
“Dollar for dollar is the plan,” Boehner told reporters. “The president has been clear that he’s not going to address our entitlement crisis unless we’re willing to raise taxes. I think the tax issue has been resolved.”
“So at this point then, I don’t know how we’re going to go forward.”
Asked if he saw the debt ceiling as leverage in getting Obama to agree to entitlement reform, Boehner said “there might be some there” but stressed: “I’m not going to risk the full faith and credit of the federal government.”
Meanwhile the Defense Department said it was delaying this week’s notices to 800,000 civilian workers that they would face rolling furloughs through September.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said that thanks to the continuing resolution “the department has decided to delay the issuance of civilian employee furlough notices for approximately two weeks.”