CAPITOL HILL —
With just hours to spare, Congress has averted a partial U.S. government shutdown by passing a stopgap spending bill to keep federal agencies open past a midnight funding deadline.
The House of Representatives approved the measure 277-151. Earlier Wednesday, it cleared the Senate 78-20. The bill, which extends the government’s spending authority until December 11, now goes to the White House for President Barack Obama’s signature.
“The most important thing we can do is keep the government open for business and continue vital programs that all Americans rely on,” said Republican Congressman Hal Rogers. “This legislation is the best path forward at this time, but we all know it is only a Band-Aid.”
The two congressional votes averted a partial government shutdown, similiar to the standoff two years ago that resulted in shuttered government offices for more than two weeks, in an ideological dispute over a federal health program.
“I wish the circumstances were different. We may temporarily avert this most recent crisis and get a bill to the president tonight, but it’s certainly not a cause for celebration,” said Democratic Representative Nita Lowey. “I remain deeply concerned about the potential of finding ourselves facing a government shutdown again in December.”
Rogers agreed that another fiscal showdown must be averted, although some of his colleagues urge a budget confrontation over another policy dispute.
“All sides must now come together and hammer out an overall budget agreement that addresses our current fiscal situation in a comprehensive way,” he said.
Some lambasted that a stopgap funding measure became necessary.
“America deserves better than a month-to-month government forever on the brink of a shutdown,” said Democratic Representative Rosa DeLauro.
Others see the temporary spending as regrettable but better than seeing federal coffers run dry.
“It would be utterly reckless to let the government shut down for any reason,” said Republican Congressman Charlie Dent.
The leaders of both houses of the Republican-led Congress agreed to votes in their respective chambers on the temporary spending bill, which continues all funding, including support for a controversial abortion provider. The bill became the only vehicle to keep the government open after Senate Democrats repeatedly blocked nearly identical legislation that would have defunded nonprofit Planned Parenthood, which offers an array of women's health services.
That funding continues to enrage social conservatives, who have demanded the group be stripped of federal support after staff members were secretly recorded discussing the sale of organs from aborted fetuses for medical research.
"It is the very definition of inhumanity: to treat children like agriculture -- to be grown and killed for their body parts, to be sold for profit," said Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who is seeking his party’s presidential nomination next year.
Planned Parenthood notes that U.S. law allows research using fetal tissue, and insists it does not profit from organ donation. Democratic backers of the group say they won't allow fiscal deadlines to be used to further an anti-abortion agenda.
"This whole episode is not about tissue donation,” said Democratic Representative Carolyn Maloney at a hearing on Planned Parenthood’s practices Tuesday. “The core issue is that Republican members of Congress now almost universally oppose a woman’s right to choose. They oppose the constitutional right of abortion."
While extending government funding, the House also took up a largely symbolic resolution that Planned Parenthood receive no further federal support. Even its backers conceded the measure would not pass Congress and therefore constituted no impediment to the overall spending bill.
Even if a government shutdown is avoided this week, the funding drama could re-emerge when the next deadline approaches in December.
The Senate’s Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, told reporters Tuesday that he and soon-to-depart House Speaker John Boehner hoped to negotiate a two-year spending deal with the White House to avoid future fiscal impasses.
“The president, Speaker Boehner and I spoke about getting started last week, and I expect to get things started very soon,” McConnell said.
“We should have started this process months ago, but better late than never,” said the Senate’s Democratic Leader, Harry Reid. “We have to do better than just keeping the federal government operating. We have to stop devastating sequester cuts from hitting our military and our middle class.”
Republicans want to boost military spending but keep most domestic programs under spending caps. Most Democrats want to end the so-called sequester for both military and domestic priorities.