WASHINGTON -- Congress is finally cleaning up its unfinished budget business for the 2013 budget year with a bipartisan government-wide funding bill. But even as that measure heads toward approval, the House and Senate are gearing up for divisive votes that will underscore sharp differences on a bigger problem: how to fix the nation's long-term deficit woes.
The Senate is positioned to approve the catchall spending bill Tuesday after it cleared a procedural hurdle Monday by a strong 63-35 vote. The House, which approved a narrower version two weeks ago, is expected to quickly clear the measure and ship it to President Barack Obama for his signature.
On a separate track, the GOP-controlled House and Democratic Senate are readying votes this week on sharply different budget blueprints for next year and beyond. The measures are non-binding and largely symbolic. But they veer off in opposite directions at the same time President Barack Obama seeks to nurture a future compromise blending new tax revenues with spending cuts beyond what his Democratic allies are willing to offer now.
The rival House and Senate budgets for the future are party-defining documents with zero chance of making their way into law as written, given the division of power in Washington, where Democrats control the White House and Senate and conservative Republicans dominate the House.
House Republicans are moving first with a plan sharply slashing health care for the poor, budgets for domestic agencies like the FBI and the National Park Service, and safety net programs like food stamps. Senate Democrats are countering with a mostly stand-pat approach that hikes taxes by almost $1 trillion over a decade while reversing already-enacted across-the-board spending cuts that are slamming both the Pentagon and domestic agencies.
The House budget measure, if enacted into law, promises a balanced ledger by the end of a decade; the Senate budget would leave significantly larger deficits but stabilize the national debt as a share of the economy, a measure that economists say is essential to avoiding a debt crisis like Greece and other European nations have experienced.
Avoiding a government shutdown this year, however, required a more delicate approach on the government-wide funding bill.
Republicans controlling the House pushed a catchall spending measure repairing Pentagon accounts devoted to military readiness and training, as well as veterans programs and several initiatives like modernizing the nation's nuclear arsenal. Senate Democrats countered with full-year, line-by-line budgets for the departments of Justice and Homeland Security, among others. All agencies would be subject to across-the-board cuts of 5 percent to domestic agencies and 8 percent to the Pentagon.
Other agencies, including those responsible for implementing Obama's health-care plan and an overhaul of Wall Street regulation, would be denied increases and run on autopilot with last year's budgets in place, subject to the across-the-board cuts.
The catchall bill advanced on a 63-35 procedural vote that sets up a vote Tuesday to pass the measure and send it back to the House, which is likely to clear it later this week for Obama's signature.
While top Senate leaders like No. 1 Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada focused on the big picture -- preventing a government shutdown -- rank-and-file senators were sweating the small stuff, focusing on local concerns like keeping meat inspectors on the job, preventing furloughs at rural airports and trying to ease layoffs at Army depots.
But 10 Republicans, mostly members of the appropriations committee, joined with Democrats to send the measure over the 60-vote hurdle set by Republicans, probably blocking amendments sought by senators in both parties.
Passage of the huge spending measure would draw to a close a mostly overlooked battle between House Republicans and Obama and his Senate Democratic allies over the annual spending bills required to fund federal agency operations, paving the way for Congress to turn away from the current budget year and resume battling over the future.
Looking ahead, the latest plan crafted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., generally resembles prior ones, relying on higher tax revenues enacted in January and improved Medicare cost estimates -- along with $4.6 trillion in spending cuts over a decade -- to promise a balanced budget in 10 years.
The budget counterproposal from Senate Democrats would repeal the sequester cuts at a cost of $1.2 trillion over a decade and blends about $1 trillion in modest cuts to health care providers, the Pentagon, domestic agencies and interest payments on the debt with an equal amount in new revenue claimed by closing tax breaks. The net result would cut about $600 billion from the deficit over 10 years.