The Wall Street Journal
By: Corey Boles & Martin Vaughan
December 22, 2010
WASHINGTON--Congress completed work Tuesday on a $250 billion package to keep the federal government running through March 4, giving Republicans and Democrats breathing room before they clash in earnest over the next federal budget.
House lawmakers voted 193-165 to approve the measure Tuesday evening, following Senate approval earlier in the day.
The measure will continue funding for most federal agencies and departments at levels authorized for fiscal 2010, though some programs will see slight increases. Lawmakers had faced a midnight Tuesday deadline, when the previous stopgap funding bill would have expired, after which the federal government would have been forced to begin shutting down.
The measure effectively kicks into the next Congress the budget debate among the new Republican-controlled House, a more closely divided Democratic-controlled Senate and the Obama administration.
Republican lawmakers want to roll back federal spending to fiscal 2008 levels, a move they say would save $100 billion over the next decade. Those efforts could run into stiff headwinds, however, as Democrats retain control of the Senate and White House.
When Republicans assume control of the House, they will be confronted with how to pay for the federal government through the remaining months of fiscal 2011 even as they prepare new budgets for fiscal 2012, which begins on Oct. 1, 2011.
They also will face a difficult vote on lifting the federal government's borrowing limit. Most analysts expect such a vote to trigger a showdown between the Republican leadership and many new tea-party-backed freshmen lawmakers who will take their seats in January. Some tea-party lawmakers campaigned on vows to oppose increases in the debt ceiling.
The federal government's budget deficit in fiscal 2010 was roughly $1.3 trillion, while its accumulated debt stands at nearly $13.9 trillion. The country's total debt ceiling stands at $14.3 trillion.
The cost of the package passed earlier this month to extend the Bush-era tax cuts, cut payroll taxes and extend unemployment benefits could mean Congress has to vote on the debt ceiling as early as March--about the time the new budget measure expires.
The measure passed by Congress doesn't contain money the Obama administration wanted to ramp up enforcement of new regulations for the financial services industry and to lay the groundwork for the national health care law.
Republicans have said they will try to cut off funding to the health law to prevent its implementation.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday that any short-term measure to fund the government "creates complications" and that the White House budget office will "work with Congress to ensure the necessary funding for critical government operations."
Congress failed to pass any of the 12 spending bills necessary to keep agencies and departments running through the coming year when the government's last fiscal year ended on Sept. 30.
While that is not unusual in an election year, it means that lawmakers have had to agree to a series of short-term measures to avert a government shutdown.
Write to Corey Boles at firstname.lastname@example.org and Martin Vaughan at email@example.com