By Susan Davis
WASHINGTON - The U.S. Senate approved a $984 billion spending bill Wednesday, ensuring the federal government will not shut down next week but also cementing in place $1.2 trillion in unpopular across-the-board spending cuts affecting most reaches of the federal government.
"We didn't want brinkmanship politics, we didn't want ultimatum politics," said Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who negotiated the bipartisan bill with GOP Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama.
The bill passed 73-26.
The stopgap spending bill will avert a shutdown March 27 and keep the federal government running through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. President Obama and congressional leaders agreed this year to work together to head off another shutdown fight.
Congress has been unable to reach bipartisan agreement on how to replace $1.2 trillion in cuts over the next 10 years - known as the sequester - that kicked in March 1 despite renewed personal efforts by President Obama to find compromise.
The spending bill, which is likely to be approved by the House and signed by the president this week, reflects the sequester-mandated levels of spending for the remainder of the fiscal year. It includes measures that would give the Pentagon and other federal agencies more flexibility in implementing the cuts, a further acknowledgement that the reductions are here to stay.
The sequester was included in a 2011 budget law as a kind of threat to Congress: Agree on a plan to achieve $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction, or face unpopular, across-the-board spending cuts. Negotiators failed to find a compromise, and the cuts kicked in March 1.
Obama wants to replace the cuts with an equal ratio of targeted spending cuts and new revenue from closing tax loopholes. Republicans oppose any such revenue and seek only spending cuts and changes to entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday that the president is engaged in a "prolonged" debate on replacing the sequester. "So it certainly looks as though the sequester will remain imposed for some time unless Republicans have a change of heart about the decision to impose it," Carney said. Republicans counter that they are willing to replace the sequester if the president drops his demand for more revenue.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Republicans have had the upper hand in the debate, but that dynamic could change when the public begins to feel the squeeze as furloughs kick in next month.
"I think (Republicans) may be at an advantage at this point by virtue of the fact that the first day of sequester came and America is still in business," he said at a breakfast hosted by The Wall Street Journal. "We almost have to go through a period here of experiencing this and what's going to happen when we have these furloughs and layoffs and changes. I'm hoping that that will build public sentiment for cutting spending in a more thoughtful way."