Senate Democrats unveil government funding bill

Tuesday - 3/12/2013, 3:18am EDT

FILE - In this June 5, 2012 file photo, Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. takes part in a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. A Senate bill to carry the government through September denies the Obama administration money for implementing new regulations on Wall Street and expansion of government health care subsidies but provides modest additional funding for domestic priorities like Head Start and health research. Looking to next year, House Republicans prepare a now-familiar budget featuring futile gestures to block "Obamacare" and turn Medicare into a voucherlike program for future retirees. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

ANDREW TAYLOR
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Top Senate Democrats and Republicans Monday night released a catchall government funding bill that denies President Barack Obama new money for implementing signature first-term accomplishments like new regulations on Wall Street and his expansion of government health care subsidies but provides modest additional funding for domestic priorities like health research and highway projects.

Monday's measure is the product of bipartisan negotiations and is the legislative vehicle to fund the day-to-day operations of government through Sept. 30 -- and prevent a government shutdown when current funding runs out March 27.

It sets a path for government in the wake of across-the-board spending cuts that took effect March 1. In most cases the minor changes in agency budgets amount to housekeeping within a trillion-dollar cap for the day-to-day operations of agencies in the current budget year.

Passage in the Senate this week seems routine and could presage an end to a mostly overlooked battle between House Republicans and Obama and his Senate Democratic allies over the annual spending bills required to fund federal agency operations.

The measure expands upon House GOP legislation that passed last week, adding sometimes symbolic funding and flexibility for scores of programs and challenges House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who warned Democrats last week not to load the measure up too much.

But each of the additional items was drawn from earlier informal House-Senate agreements, and top Senate Appropriations Committee Republican Richard Shelby of Alabama has signed on.

The bipartisan measure comes as Washington girds for weeks of warfare over the budget for next year and beyond as both House and Senate Budget Committees this week take up blueprints for the upcoming 2014 budget year.

The first salvo in that battle is coming from House Republicans poised to release on Tuesday a now-familiar budget featuring gestures to block "Obamacare," turn Medicare into a voucher-like program for future retirees and sharply curb Medicaid and domestic agency budgets. Such ideas are dead on arrival with Obama and Democrats controlling the Senate, but will -- in concert with new taxes on the wealthy enacted in January -- allow Republicans to propose a budget that would come to balance within 10 years.

"We think we owe the American people a balanced budget," House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan said on "Fox News Sunday."

Senate Democrats are countering on Wednesday with a budget plan mixing tax increases, cuts to the Pentagon and relatively modest cuts to domestic programs. The measure would not reach balance, but it would undo automatic budget cuts that started taking effect this month and largely leaves alone rapidly growing benefit programs like Medicare.

"We need to make sure that everybody participates in getting us to a budget that deals with our debt and our deficit responsibly," Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., said Monday evening.

The upcoming debate over the long-term budgetary future promises to be stoutly partisan, even as Obama is undertaking outreach to rank-and-file Republicans in hopes of sowing the seeds for a bipartisan "grand bargain" on the budget this year after two failed attempts to strike agreement with House Speaker John Boehner. Obama's budget is already weeks overdue and Press Secretary Jay Carney deflected questions about it Monday, other than to promise that it would "for a period of time" bring deficits below 3 percent of gross domestic product, a measure that many analysts say is sustainable without damaging the economy.

The wrap-up spending bill for the half-completed fiscal year released Monday, however, is another matter entirely. It's a lowest common denominator approach that gives the Pentagon much-sought relief for readiness accounts but adds money sought by Democrats like Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., for domestic programs such as Head Start, health research, transportation and housing.

The Senate measure would award seven Cabinet departments -- including Defense, Commerce, justice, Agriculture and Veterans Affairs -- with their line-by-line detailed budgets, but would leave the rest of the government running on autopilot at current levels. All domestic agencies except for Veterans Affairs would then be subject to a 5 percent across-the-board cut while the Pentagon would bear an 8 percent cut.

Mikulski needs GOP votes to pass the measure through the Senate, which Democrats control with 55 votes but where 60 votes are required for virtually every piece of substantive legislation. Using their leverage, Republicans have denied a White House request for almost $1 billion to help set up state health-care exchanges to implement Obamacare as well as smaller requests for financial regulators to implement the 2010 Dodd-Frank law overhauling regulation of Wall St. and for the IRS to police tax returns.