House passes budget bill, averts government shutdown
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The House of Representatives eliminated the threat of a government shutdown next week, approving on Thursday a stop-gap funding bill that temporarily eases partisan tensions after months of bitter fights over budgets.
In a rare show of cooperation, the Republican-controlled House voted 318-109 to approve legislation that keeps government agencies and programs funded through the end of the fiscal year on September 30.
The debate over how to shrink deficits now shifts to rival budget plans from Republicans and Democrats for the 2014 fiscal year starting on October 1.
Just before the government funding vote, the House passed Representative Paul Ryan's plan to balance the budget in 10 years through deep cuts to healthcare and social programs while lowering tax rates.
Senate Democrats' plan, which raises tax revenue and calls for more modest cuts to aid job growth, is expected to pass in the Senate on Friday.
While the two parties' blueprints are vastly different, lawmakers were encouraged by bipartisan cooperation shown in avoiding a damaging government shutdown.
Both parties have been chastened by bruising budget fights like the "fiscal cliff" negotiations that went down to the wire in January, and the failure by Congress and the White House to halt the automatic spending cuts triggered on March 1.
"We proved that when we set our mind to it, we can get complicated, hard things done," said House Appropriations Committee chairman Harold Rogers, a Kentucky Republican.
But another showdown looms this summer over raising the federal debt limit.
House Speaker John Boehner said he would use the next debt limit increase deadline - likely in late July or early August - to demand more spending cuts and major changes to the federal healthcare and retirement programs.
'DOLLAR FOR DOLLAR'
He wants any increase in the federal borrowing cap to be matched by an equal amount of spending cuts, setting up potential repeat of the 2011 debt-limit brawl that cost the United States its top-tier credit rating.
"Dollar for dollar is the plan," Boehner told reporters after the House votes.
Republicans chose not to use the March 27 expiration of spending authority and a potential agency shutdown as a leverage point to demand more spending cuts. Instead, they want to wage a campaign for deficit reduction centered on proposals by Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman.
Shortly before approving the spending bill, the House backed a blueprint offered by the Wisconsin lawmaker to eliminate U.S. deficits within 10 years through deep cuts in healthcare and spending on other social safety-net programs.
The funding bill for the rest of this fiscal year, which the Democratic-led Senate approved on Wednesday, keeps in place $85 billion in automatic spending cuts, known as the "sequester."
But it takes some of the sting out of those cuts by allowing the military and several domestic agencies to move around some money within their reduced budgets.
The Defense Department, for example, will be able to shift to operations and maintenance some $10 billion that would otherwise be locked in outdated, unwanted budget accounts.
The House vote prompted the Pentagon to announce a two-week delay in any decisions on how much of its 800,000-strong civilian workforce would be put on unpaid leave due to its $46 billion share of the automatic cuts. Officials want to analyze the measure's impact.
The funding package will now be sent to President Barack Obama to be signed into law.
Ryan's budget, marked by repeal of Obama's healthcare reforms and deep spending cuts to the Medicaid insurance system for the poor and other programs, will define Republicans' positions in the rest of this year's fiscal battles and in congressional elections in 2014.
It will be matched by Democrats' plan from Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, which calls for $1 trillion in additional tax revenues, $100 billion in new infrastructure and jobs spending and modest cuts to health care programs.
And during the week of April 8, Obama will weigh in with his own budget request, two months after it was due.
The House voted 221-207, largely along party lines, to approve Ryan's nonbinding budget resolution, with all Democrats and 10 Republican conservatives opposing it.
Senate Democrats later put Ryan's plan to a vote in that chamber, where it was defeated 40-59, with five Republicans joining majority Democrats in voting against it.
The latest Ryan budget, like the previous versions that solidified his position as the Republicans' fiscal guru and helped him become the party's vice presidential candidate last year, proposes major changes to the Medicare healthcare program for the elderly.
This popular but increasingly expensive program would be converted to a voucher-like system of subsidies for older Americans to buy private health insurance or coverage through the traditional Medicare program.
Democrats complained the Ryan plan would crush near-term economic growth for the sake of an arbitrary goal of reaching balance in 10 years.
"It adopts the European-style austerity approach that we've seen slow down economies in many parts of Europe," said Democratic Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Budget Committee Democrat. "We should instead be focusing on job growth and putting people back to work."
Ryan countered that Democrats are not serious about taming the growing debt of $16.7 trillion.
"We want to balance the budget. They don't. We want to restrain spending, they want to spend more money," Ryan said of his plan.
The Democrats' budget plan envisions deficits in the $400 billion to $600 billion range through the next decade, but maintains that these will average 2.4 percent of U.S. economic output, a level many economists view as sustainable.
The Democrats' budget seeks $1 trillion in new tax revenues by sharply curbing tax breaks for the wealthy and proposes $100 billion in new spending on infrastructure and job training.
It aims to replace the automatic spending cuts, half with revenues and the rest with other cuts, and offers only modest, undefined spending reductions to healthcare, while keeping the structure of social safety-net programs largely unchanged.