March 5, 2013

House bill may avert March 31 government shutdown

Despite proposed shifts, the Republican plan would lock in the $85 billion in cuts through Sept. 30.

By ROSALIND S. HELDERMAN The Washington Post

WASHINGTON – House Republicans on Monday introduced a bill that would avoid a government shutdown at the end of March but that also could mitigate some of the most striking effects of the across-the-board federal spending cuts enacted last week.

But even though the proposed shifts would make the sequester slightly less indiscriminate – particularly for the military – the measure would leave in place the $85 billion spending reduction, locking in the cuts through Sept. 30, end of the fiscal year.

The funding resolution would, for example, prohibit U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement from defunding beds in detention facilities where illegal immigrants are being held.

That proposal came after Republicans were angered when several hundred illegal immigrants were released from holding facilities last week in anticipation of the cuts.

The measure also would provide $2 billion in new funding for embassy security, a response to an attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11 in which four Americans were killed. And it would provide $129 million to help the FBI avoid reducing its staff because of sequestration.

Republicans propose to offset that money with cuts elsewhere, such as extending a salary freeze for federal employees and members of Congress. The freeze would nix a 0.5 percent raise for federal workers that is scheduled to take effect in April under an executive order from President Obama.

These relatively modest changes amount to nibbling around the edges of the new austerity plan introduced with the sequester.

For much of the government, however, the resolution would largely keep spending priorities that had been in place for the first half of the fiscal year -- and then whack them by $85 billion, as Obama ordered on Friday.

The proposal is likely to face a vote in the Republican-led House on Thursday. If it passes, it will be up to Obama and Senate Democrats to decide whether to accept its terms: That would mean realizing that reductions they have said could devastate government services are here to stay.

On Monday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano set off a flurry of speculation that the administration was exaggerating the impact of sequestration after saying that lines at some of the nation's busiest airports are "150 to 200 percent as long as we would normally expect."

The secretary mentioned airports in Los Angeles and Chicago in her remarks at a breakfast sponsored by Politico as examples, although she hedged her remarks saying she would have to check to be sure.

By afternoon, officials with Customs and Border Protection issued a statement saying that wait times had increased significantly at John F. Kennedy and Miami International airports on Saturday with some passengers waiting three hours or longer to clear customs.

Senate Democrats could seek to counter the Republican move by allowing additional flexibility to the mandated cuts in domestic programs, similar to what the House bill would extend to defense cuts.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said Monday that she was still reviewing the House proposal but that she is optimistic that she can work with her House counterpart – Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky. – on a speedy agreement for the funding bill.

"He's sensible, civil and pragmatic," she said.

Obama has signaled that he wants to avoid a government shutdown when the current funding expires March 27 and that he probably would accept a continuation plan that would allow the sequester cuts to remain in effect for the rest of the fiscal year.

Beyond that, he is likely to turn his attention to undoing the sequester as part of a broader deficit-reduction deal that would replace the current cuts with a combination of new tax revenue and reductions to entitlement programs.

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