Democrats controlling the Senate are moving to give the Obama administration more flexibility in administering automatic spending cuts ordered last week as the chamber advances a huge spending measure that would fund day-to-day federal operations through September and avert a government shutdown.
Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said the new "enhanced transfer reprogramming authority" would give agencies "breathing room" to move money from one account to another to ease the sting of across-the-board cuts of 5 percent to domestic agency operating budgets and an 8 percent cut to the Pentagon.
Mikulski also said the Senate would give agencies including the Agriculture, Homeland Security and Justice departments their detailed, line-by-line budgets as part of legislation advancing next week to head off a government shutdown at the end of March. Other agencies would run on autopilot essentially at last year's funding levels. The automatic cuts, known as a sequester, apply whether or not an agency received its detailed budget.
Mikulski also said the Democratic measure wouldn't whip up controversy by boosting funding for controversial Obama administration priorities like implementing the signature 2010 laws overhauling the health care system and regulation of Wall St.
There's a "delicate balance" between supporting Obama administration priorities and going too far as to "sink the bill," Mikulski said.
Mikulski spoke shortly after House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, warned Democrats controlling the Senate not to load up the funding measure "with extraneous provisions, partisan riders (and) budget gimmicks." The Maryland Democrat said she was not being "provocative or pugilistic" but that her party has priorities like additional funding for transportation.
The new transfer authority is still under negotiation but would require agencies to obtain the approval of top members of the Appropriations committees in order to move funds to new purposes. She did not detail how sweeping the transfer authority would be but the idea is to allow agencies to shift funds from lower priority agency missions to more important ones.
The House passed a narrower version of the spending bill on Wednesday, one that focused on giving the Pentagon additional money for military readiness and boosting spending on veterans programs.
Mikulski only characterized the Senate measure in broad terms. It won't be revealed fully until floor debate begins next week. Congress faces a March 27 deadline to avoid a government shutdown.
Both the House and the Senate bills are expected to give budget relief to a few agencies -- the FBI and the Border Patrol among them -- to help them avoid having to furlough employees once the automatic cuts, known as a sequester, begin to bite. Other programs receiving new funding include security for embassies and modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Mikulski took over the powerful appropriations committee after the death of Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, in December.