WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate passed a bill Wednesday to keep the federal government running after March 27, approving a six-month spending measure that adds to the unpopular cuts of sequestration.
The $984 billion "continuing resolution" passed by a vote of 73 to 26. It makes additional across-the-board cuts of 1.9 percent to 2.5 percent in various categories of spending on top of the $85 billion in annual cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 -- the infamous deal that created the failed super committee and the resulting budget sequestration that slices $1.2 trillion over a decade.
Lawmakers on all sides have hammered the blunt sequester cuts as "stupid" and "irresponsible," yet they resorted to the same strategy in this new funding measure because they have been unable to agree on anything else.
A congressional source familiar with the negotiations -- speaking freely on the condition of anonymity -- explained that when the six-month bill was originally agreed to in principle last fall, all sides expected that the sequester would be replaced. But sequestration remains, and because of that -- plus other budgetary accounting issues -- Congress had to spend less over the rest of this year than the original agreement contemplated.
Reopening the spending negotiations likely would have turned bitter and contentious, so lawmakers opted instead for another round of broad cuts -- and secured bipartisan agreement in the process.
Yet that didn't stop numerous senators from taking to the floor over the last week to decry the lack of thought going into both sequestration and the continuing resolution, and to criticize the cuts that are being made. Most prominently, Republicans complained that the White House was stopping public tours in a bald attempt to stir up public anger at spending reductions. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) offered an amendment to restore the tours, but it failed 45 to 54. It also would have restored national park tours.
Shortly before the vote, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) argued that Coburn's measure wouldn't help because it did nothing to address the relevant agency -- the Secret Service.
"There has been some suggestion that this would help restore White House tours," Reed said. "Those tours are governed by the Secret Service budget, which is not part of this amendment, so that would not be affected."
Coburn shot back, insisting that the National Park Service could take the funds offered by his amendment and allocate them to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. "It's not a Secret Service problem. It's a national park problem," he said.
On a more substantive level, the broad sweep of the across-the-board cuts is forcing agencies to take steps that could end up costing the government in the long run.
One example is the Census Bureau, which usually sees its budget grow in the third year of a new decade as it plans for the next full census and as it takes a new five-year portrait of the nation's economy. The White House had hoped the agency would be working with a $970 million budget. But Congress only agreed to $906 million, which will be cut by about $46 million under sequestration and another $16 million by the new across-the-board cuts. The agency will be left about $125 million short of where it thought it would be.
The bureau has already warned that the sequester means shelving plans to test cheaper ways of conducting the decennial Census, which could end up costing billions extra. The bureau has also said it will delay by at least six months the new Economic Census, last done in 2007 before the recession. That study provides the data with which policymakers estimate everything from the gross domestic product to employment. Such information is considered vital to adequately understanding the effects of legislative changes on the economy and presumably would be relied upon in any sort of tax reform effort, which Congress hopes to take up soon.
House leaders have already signaled that they will pass the Senate version of the continuing resolution before the week is done.
Senators on both sides of the aisle hailed themselves for passing the bill in a bipartisan manner.
"We have showed that we have done something pretty terrific," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. "We didn't want brinksmanship politics, we didn't want ultimatum politics, we wanted to be able to move our bill forward."
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) praised the measure as a big step toward "regular order," in which committees produce bipartisan work.
"I know people are disappointed because they wanted to rearrange things differently. I would have liked to rearrange things differently," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), acknowledging the lingering dissatisfaction at the inability of lawmakers to deal with the sequester. But he insisted the bill was a good sign.
"I hope this practical, common-sense leadership [of Shelby and Mikulski] will be a good sign for our regular appropriations bills and other things in the future," Reid said.