WASHINGTON – The Senate has approved must-do legislation to fund the day-to-day budgets of five Cabinet agencies, kick-starting long overdue work to add the details to budget limits agreed to by President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans this summer.
The bipartisan 69-30 vote came on a $182 billion bundle of three bills to fund programs including transportation, space exploration, housing subsidies and the FBI for the 2012 budget year that started a month ago. The vote sets up negotiations with the GOP-controlled House on final legislation that could be presented to the president before Thanksgiving.
Under the budget pact enacted in August, lawmakers have to cut about $7 billion — or less than 1 percent — from the more than $1 trillion budgeted last year for the daily operations of federal agencies. Such cuts are too small for tea party conservatives but would come in addition to savings from benefit programs like farm subsidies and Medicare expected from a deficit "supercommittee" later this month.
The budget limits, however, mean large cuts to programs like community development grants to local governments and subsidies for cities and towns for new equipment and less for the hiring of additional police officers. Highway funding would be held at last year's levels, save for $1.9 billion in emergency help for states to rebuild from natural disasters.
Overall, the legislation holds agency budgets like the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service mostly flat relative to last year. The retirement of the Space Shuttle allowed NASA to absorb a cut of $509 million, or 3 percent, while Section 8 housing subsidies for the poor would get a $663 million increase, or about 2 percent.
Tuesday's vote was a step forward for the moribund appropriations process on Capitol Hill.
While the so-called deficit supercommittee is deadlocked over taxes, the once-powerful appropriators on Capitol Hill — responsible for everything from funding the Pentagon to making sure the Department of Agriculture has enough meat inspectors — have been stuck as well, victims of a tea party revolt and disputes among congressional leaders.
At issue are 12 annual spending bills that used to consume months of precious time House and Senate floor time. Instead, not a single one has been completed and signed into law a month into the 2012 budget year. House leaders have pulled the plug after passing six of the 12 bills; The Senate's passage of three bills bundled into one will bring that chamber's total to four completed measures. Another multi-bill bundle is likely to come before the Senate later this week.
Top lawmakers admit that the original goal of wrapping things up by Thanksgiving isn't going to happen. The new goal is to complete Congress' work by Christmas, but even that goal could prove difficult — and put a vote the spending measures in uncomfortable proximity to a potential vote on controversial deficit legislation from the deficit supercommittee. It'll take a stopgap spending measure in coming weeks to buy more time. Tuesday's measure is a possible vehicle to carry the short-term spending bill.
The 2012 bills follow up a hard-fought compromise between Obama and House Republicans in April, an accommodation that carved almost $40 billion from agency budgets for 2010, which were enacted when Democrats controlled Congress.
But this year's cycle of spending bills has been interrupted by an unusual dynamic: the August mid-course agreement, which has paved the way for Senate action while making it more difficult to pass the remaining bills through the tea party-driven House.
In the House, more than 50 tea party lawmakers still back a GOP spending "cap" that's $24 billion less than House Speaker John Boehner and Obama agreed to in August as part of hard-fought legislation to increase the government's ability to borrow.
But without the support of tea party lawmakers, it would take Democratic votes to pass most of the bills, which has created heartburn for GOP leaders because it means the bills would have to be largely scrubbed of items offensive to Democrats like policy "riders" on the environment and labor regulations. That's an unappetizing prospect for Republican leaders and it appears to be the main reason why the remaining six bills haven't come to the House floor for votes.
In contrast to past years, the current batch of spending bills is free of so-called earmarks, those much-criticized homestate projects like new roads and bridges, community development funds, and money to help local police departments to buy new equipment. But the lack of earmarks hasn't seemed to make the legislation any more popular with conservatives.
Meanwhile, Senate action was held up until the August agreement. In addition, plans to advance some of the legislation in September — and even earlier — were scrapped as Republicans and Democrats quarreled over disaster aid and Obama's jobs package.
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