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Congress Backs Temporary Fix for Government Spending

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Lawmakers are patching together a temporary spending bill to avert a government shutdown after Republicans killed a $1.2 trillion “omnibus” measure that was loaded with the pet projects known as earmarks.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid abandoned the omnibus bill yesterday after several Republicans he had been counting on withdrew their support for the plan, which would have funded government programs and agencies through Sept. 30, 2011. The Nevada Democrat said lawmakers would instead write a short-term funding bill, known as a continuing resolution, though he didn’t say how long it would last.

The House today approved, by voice vote, legislation that would keep the government running until Dec. 21 while lawmakers negotiate a longer-term extension. Several hours later, the Senate agreed by unanimous consent to approve the resolution. A stopgap measure currently funding the government expires tomorrow.

The moves mean that federal agencies could go roughly halfway through their 2011 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, before updated budgets are approved. Another stopgap measure also would set the stage for a spending fight early next year between President Barack Obama’s administration and Republicans, who will control the House in the new Congress and who have promised to slash spending by $100 billion.

Competing Timetables

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the administration prefers a continuing resolution that would fund the agencies for the duration of the government’s fiscal year. Reid said yesterday that he doesn’t have the votes for that, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wants the funding extended only through Feb. 18.

The decision to pull the omnibus measure was a victory for Republicans, who lined up against the bill even though most had included in it funding for projects in their home states. Republicans complained they were only given days to consider the 1,924-page measure, which was introduced Dec. 14.

Reid “doesn’t have the votes, and the reason he doesn’t have the votes is because members on this side of the aisle increasingly felt concerned about the way we do business,” said McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.

“For many of our members, it was not so much the substance of the bill but the process” that spurred opposition, he said.

‘Great, Great Victory’

Critics of earmarks hailed the bill’s defeat. “This is a great, great victory for the American people,” said Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican. “I want to thank those that made the calls, those that sent e-mails, those that stood up and called into the talk shows all over America and said, ‘We’ve had enough.’”

Democrats, who control the Senate with 58 votes, needed to pick up the support of at least three Republicans to overcome stalling tactics after Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, announced her opposition to the bill.

Utah Republican Senator Bob Bennett had announced he would support the measure, while Ohio Republican George Voinovich had said he was leaning toward backing it. Both lawmakers leave office when the new Congress convenes in early January.

Reid said last night that though he had been counting on support from as many as nine Republicans, “in the last 24 hours, they’ve walked away.” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat, said Republicans sank a bill they had helped write and after his colleagues dropped billions from the measure to meet their demands to reduce spending.

‘Hypocrite’ Charge

The earmark issue prompted sharp debate among lawmakers, with Reid calling Republicans hypocrites for threatening to torpedo the omnibus bill while failing to rescind earmarks they included in it.

“If you went to ‘H’ in a dictionary and found ‘hypocrite,’ under that would be people who ask for earmarks but vote against them,” he told reporters.

All but a handful of lawmakers in both parties had requested about $8 billion in earmarks in the bill. McConnell had secured more than $100 million in such projects, according to the Washington-based budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

The derailing of the omnibus bill, which included about $160 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and also included a food-safety measure, is the latest in a series of breakdowns this year in the congressional budgeting process. Democrats failed to approve an annual tax-and-spending blueprint or any of the 12 annual appropriations bills needed to fund agencies for the 2011 fiscal year.

“There’s no more basic work than the funding of the government -- that’s the first thing we ought to be doing,” McConnell said. “As a result of not doing the basic work of government, here we are, at the end, struggling with this issue.”

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