The U.S. Congress has approved a stop-gap measure to fund the federal government for the next two weeks. The bill, approved Wednesday 91 to 9 by the Senate, postpones a possible government shutdown, and gives Democrats and Republicans a brief window to agree on spending levels for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends in September.
The bill, called a continuing resolution, is one small stride in what members of both political parties say must be a long march to reduce America’s $1.5-trillion federal deficit.
Republican Senator Tom Coburn compares government debt to an illness. "We have a real disease in our country today. And the disease is a cancer that will take away our freedom."
The approved measure trims expenditures by $4 billion in the short term - a down payment on far deeper cuts sought by Republicans, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
"Even though it was only a two-week bill, and a $4 billion reduction in spending, it is the first time I can recall, in the time that I have been here, our actually cutting spending on an appropriation bill," said McConnell.
McConnell said crushing debt is suffocating the U.S. economy. "We have added $3 trillion to the [national] debt since the beginning of the Obama administration, while we have lost 3 million jobs. I think you could argue pretty persuasively that is the worst way to run the government. And we want to stop that."
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives already has passed a budget bill for the remainder of the fiscal year that slashes spending by more than $60 billion.
Democrats, who control the Senate, say the cuts go too far. "At a time when the gap between the very, very wealthy and everybody else is growing wider, will we try to balance the budget on the backs of the middle class, on the backs of the poor, on the backs of the elderly, the sick, the children?," said Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent who often votes with the Democrats.
Democratic legislators are proposing more modest cuts, while President Barack Obama has advocated a five-year freeze on domestic non-security spending. Democrats warn severe budget cuts would harm a weak U.S. economic recovery and erode America’s long term competitiveness.
President Obama praised the stop-gap spending bill’s passage and urged Congress to make further progress on a bipartisan basis.
Democratic Senator Richard Durbin struck a somber note after voting for the continuing resolution. "I do not think passing a spending bill for 14 days is anything to celebrate. It is going to take a super-human effort by the White House, as well as congressional leaders, to achieve a new spending bill for the remainder of the year in just two weeks, but we are going to roll up our sleeves and get after it."
Analyst Bill Gallston of the Brookings Institution said that even if current-year spending levels are agreed to, bigger budget battles remain.
"There is a much longer-term conversation that has to begin about the budget for the new fiscal year  and actually for a five-year timeframe. That will be a very difficult conversation."
Gallston said Democrats and Republicans will have to compromise and show flexibility if government shutdowns are to be avoided and America’s fiscal position is to improve.
"If both parties mean what they are now saying, then we are in for a very rough time in the United States."
Polls show the American people angry and worried about federal debt, but divided on whether a government shutdown is beneficial to force fiscal restraint. For now, Washington has a two-week reprieve to try to bridge partisan differences and forge a way forward.