House spending bill prevents shutdown, extends pay freeze

Wednesday - 3/6/2013, 4:34pm EST

DAVID ESPO
AP Special Correspondent

WASHINGTON (AP) - The House has approved legislation to prevent a government shutdown at the end of the month, freeze federal pay for a third straight year and give the Defense Department some relief from a cash crunch caused by sequestration.

The huge spending measure, which was passed on a 267-151 vote, would fund federal operations through September. It leaves in place automatic cuts of 5 percent to domestic agencies and 7.8 percent to the Pentagon ordered by President Barack Obama Friday night after months of battling Republicans over the budget.

The measure now goes to the Senate, where Democrats hope to give additional Cabinet agencies similar flexibility in implementing their shares of the $85 billion in spending cuts, according to several officials who described closed-door talks that also involved the White House. Among the candidates are the departments of Homeland Security, Transportation, Justice and State. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to disclose details.

White House, Congress coming to budget compromise?

The move marks a reversal for President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., both of whom spoke dismissively in recent days of Republican plans for flexibility in administering the cuts.

"The problem is when you're cutting $85 billion in seven months, which represents over a 10 percent cut in the defense budget in seven months, there's no smart way to do that," the president said Feb. 26 in Newport News, Va.

"You don't want to have to choose between, Let's see, do I close funding for the disabled kid or the poor kid? Do I close this Navy shipyard or some other one?"

However, when House Republican leaders unveiled the bill earlier this week, the White House said it was concerned but stopped short of a full veto threat.

Asked last week whether he would agree to flexibility, Reid said: "No, why would I? I don't have a reason to do so."

Pentagon officials, however, embraced flexibility even before the measure came to a vote in the House.

The difference for the Navy is "almost night and day," the service's top uniformed officer told Congress on Tuesday. With flexibility, said Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, work could proceed on the overhaul of two aircraft carriers and construction on a third, all projects that the Pentagon had said would be curtailed without any changes.

The Pentagon did not immediately say whether it also would be able to order the USS Harry S. Truman to the Persian Gulf region, a mission it announced earlier would fall victim to the cuts.

Bill also extends pay freeze

The bill also extends the two-year pay freeze on federal employees through the end of the fiscal year. Federal workers are due for a slight pay increase — 0.5 percent — per an executive order from signed by Obama at the beginning of the year.

Federal-employee unions had lobbied hard against the continuing resolution, both because of the continuation of the pay freeze and because the bill largely leaves in place the sequester cuts for most civilian agencies.

Last month, the House voted to extend the pay freeze through Dec. 31. However, the stand-alone bill was dead-on-arrival in the Senate.