Senate OKs legislation to keep government open; House votes next

WASHINGTON — All but ensuring there will be no federal shutdown, the Senate on Wednesday approved a measure to keep the government running — but not before tweaking the automatic budget cuts that threaten some of the lawmakers’ favorite programs.

Meat plant inspectors and tuition assistance for military service members were among the programs spared from reductions. The bill, which passed on a 73-26 vote, returns to the House for final approval as soon as Thursday.

The legislation is needed to avert a shutdown when a stopgap funding measure expires March 27, a prospect both parties want to avoid. It would keep the government running for the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) had warned senators that loading up the bill with too many changes would spark a protest by his Republican majority.

The House has already approved a version, which protected some defense programs from the so-called sequester cuts, the deep, across-the-board reductions that began March 1 after Congress failed to come up with an alternative strategy to trim the budget.

The bill also shifted money to add $2 billion for embassy security in response to the deadly attack on a U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, and to ensure that Immigration and Customs Enforcement will be able to maintain its full capacity of 34,000 detention beds.

The Senate, however, tacked on additional changes to spare other domestic programs.

Senators reinstated money for Head Start preschool and research at the National Institutes of Health. It also ensured that 9,000 more children will have government-funded child care.

Even though the bill keeps the amount of the sequester cuts in place, Congress reshuffled the money. Senators filed more than 125 amendments to change the House bill.

“The House sent a bill that we felt was skimpy and spartan,” said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee.

But the Senate hit trouble with the avalanche of amendments. After a nearly weeklong standoff, leaders of both parties agreed to vote on a truncated list.

On Wednesday, senators unanimously agreed to restore money for meat inspectors. The bipartisan amendment was backed by agricultural state lawmakers, including Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who is considered to be one of the most endangered Democrats up for reelection in 2014.

Another Democrat up for reelection, Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, won unanimous support to save a tuition assistance program for military service members, a measure she co-sponsored with Republican Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma.

Unanimous support was also given to a proposal to redirect National Science Foundation money from political science research — “one that really gets my goat,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). The money was shifted to the National Cancer Institute.

Other changes, however, fell by the wayside.

Defeated was an effort to keep the White House open to public tours by transferring funds from an account for National Heritage Areas programs, including money for an “Elvis Music Boat” on the Augusta Canal in Georgia.

The Obama administration’s decision to shutter the White House to save $2 million from Secret Service accounts has been a particular target of Republicans.

Also rejected was a measure to keep 170 air traffic control towers open beyond April 7 by shifting $50 million from other accounts. Despite bipartisan backing from 26 senators, it never got a vote.

“Once there’s an accident and somebody dies,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), “the question will always be: What if there was an air traffic controller there?”


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