With a nasty weather system threatening the nation's capital, the House on Wednesday quickly passed a bill to keep the government funded through the current fiscal year. It will incorporate the lower funding amounts mandated by sequestration.
The successful vote on the bill, which passed 267-151, begins the process of avoiding a government shutdown that would occur March 27 if lawmakers are unable to agree on spending rates.
While the House bill includes the $85 billion in cuts as part of sequestration, Republicans have moved to soften the blow to the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs by providing flexibility for those agencies on how to spread out the mandated spending reductions. The bill also includes funding for the Affordable Care Act, which caused some consternation from the House's more conservative ranks.
In lieu of traditional budget resolutions, the federal government, for most of the Obama administration, has been funded by short-term agreements that require regular votes to avert a shutdown. While in the past these votes required intense negotiation between the parties—lasting until the final hour of the shutdown deadline—the current extension is expected to pass both chambers with relatively little controversy.
The Wednesday vote in the House and the following vote on a Senate version next week will give both chambers a full two weeks—an eternity in Washington—to work out any differences in their bills.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, speaking with reporters after meeting with members of the Senate Democratic caucus on Tuesday, said he's "cautiously optimistic that we can reach a solution before we leave here before the Easter recess after we do the budget."
Later, when asked about possible divisions between the bill the Senate will vote on and the House version, the Nevada Democrat predicted that his chamber would also want to offer flexibility to other agencies on how to handle the sequester cuts. "We believe that this being a bicameral legislature, that we also have the right to have some appropriation bills and that we also have the right to have some anomalies," said Reid. "That's what we're going to be focusing on."
The bill's passage comes a full six months before the fiscal year ends, giving lawmakers time to continue work on a more substantive agreement on long-term government spending. Although negotiations for a "grand bargain" have stalled in the past, President Barack Obama this week began reaching out to lawmakers to reinvigorate talks.