WASHINGTON - Democrats abruptly abandoned a fight over
spending on Thursday and said they would instead extend government
funding on a temporary basis, a move that gives Republicans a greater
chance to enact the deep cuts they have promised.
The surprise agreement looked likely to end a high-stakes game of
chicken that could have led to a shutdown of wide swaths of the
government if Congress had not agreed on a spending bill by Saturday
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said nine Republicans had agreed to back the bill but their support evaporated in recent days.
Lacking the votes to advance the measure, Reid said he would agree to
a Republican proposal to temporarily extend government funding beyond
the Saturday deadline.
Aides said they expected the measure to pass easily when it comes up for a vote on Friday or Saturday.
Like President Barack Obama's $858 billion tax deal that is poised to
clear Congress, the tentative spending deal reflects the new clout
Republicans enjoy in Washington after a sweeping victory in November's
Democrats had hoped to pass the $1.1 trillion spending bill before
January, when Republicans take control of the House of Representatives
and hold more seats in the Senate.
Republicans in the Senate had blasted the 1,924-page bill, which
would fund everything from national defense to preschool programs, as a
wasteful boondoggle that ignores voters' concerns over government
The bill would have given Obama the resources he requested to
implement his sweeping reforms of healthcare and Wall Street
regulations, but at a level $29 billion below what he requested -- a
dollar amount that Republicans who helped craft the bill had insisted
The bill also would have funded many programs that Obama has opposed,
such as an extra engine for the F-35 fighter and some 6,600 pet
spending projects, known as earmarks, that were requested by lawmakers.
FUROR OVER EARMARKS
Lawmakers have long used earmarks to curry favor with voters by
steering federal dollars to their home districts. But in recent years,
earmarks have figured in a number of scandals and voters increasingly
view them as prime examples of wasteful spending.
Republicans adopted a voluntary ban on earmarks after the November
election, which made it difficult for them to support a bill that
included billions of dollars worth of earmark projects they had
"If you went to 'H' in the dictionary and found 'hypocrite,' under
that would be people who ask for earmarks but vote against them," Reid
said earlier in the day.
Reid and many other Democrats have fiercely defended earmarks as a
way to ensure that Congress retains its control over federal spending.
The two leaders have not worked out how long to extend current
funding. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has introduced a
measure that would last until February 18.
Until then, the government would continue to operate on the framework
of an outdated budget that likely would make it difficult for federal
agencies to cancel outdated programs and move ahead with new ones.
That could complicate efforts to implement Obama's signature Wall
Street and healthcare reforms, but also place on hold thousands of more
routine items like research grants.
The fiscal year began on October 1, but the government has been
operating on an extension of last year's budget because Congress has
been unable to pass any of the 12 bills that fund everything from
prisons to scientific research -- or even pass a budget agreement that
would set funding levels.
"As a result of not doing the basic work of government, here we are at the end struggling with this issue," McConnell said.
McConnell and other Republicans have criticized Democrats for
focusing on other matters, such as an effort to allow gays to serve
openly in the military. Democrats have blamed Republican obstructing
tactics that prevent the chamber from operating efficiently.
Any measure passed by the Senate would have to be reconciled with a substantially different spending bill passed by the House.