WASHINGTON – The top Democrat in the Senate said Tuesday that he'll bring legislation to the floor next week to keep the government running at current spending levels for 30 days to avoid a shutdown in March.
The move by Majority Leader Harry Reid is in keeping with longstanding tradition, but it was immediately rejected by GOP leaders who assailed the Nevada Democrat for freezing spending at levels inflated by generous budget increases provided under President Barack Obama.
A short-term bill is required because the House on Saturday passed a $1.2 trillion omnibus spending bill to finance the government through Sept. 30. That measure would slash domestic agency budgets by more than $60 billion over the last seven months of the budget year, which would lead to widespread furloughs of federal workers and dismantle a host of environmental regulations.
It will take weeks or even months to work out differences on the massive spending bill, thus requiring the stopgap bill.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, rejected Reid's proposal, which was revealed in a politically freighted statement charging that Boehner is maneuvering the government toward a shutdown by insisting on immediate spending cuts.
"Speaker Boehner should stop drawing lines in the sand, and come to the table to find a responsible path forward that cuts government spending while keeping our communities safe and our economy growing," Reid said.
Boehner said, as he did last week, that the House will not pass a stopgap bill, known as a continuing resolution, at existing rates of spending.
"The House will pass a short-term spending bill — one that also cuts spending," Boehner said in a statement. "Senate Democratic leaders are insisting on a status quo that has left us with a mountain of debt."
"They want cuts right now, on their terms, before a negotiation can take place," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "How can you say you're in good faith when you say, 'I want my demands before any negotiation.'"
Unless someone budges, a partial government shutdown could occur March 5 for the first time since two partial shutdowns in 1995-1996, including one that spanned three weeks.
Reid warned of dire consequences in the event of an impasse.
"A shutdown could send our fragile economy back into a recession, and mean no Social Security checks for seniors, less funding for border security and no paychecks for our troops," Reid said.
In fact, Social Security checks would go out as scheduled. Troop pay would be unaffected, as would a host of other government operations, like border protection, law enforcement, air traffic control and food inspection. But applications for passports and visas, national parks and payments to federal contractors would be affected.
The White House says the government is prepared for a shutdown under longstanding contingency plans that have remained in effect since the Reagan administration.
"All of this is beside the point since, as the congressional leadership has said on a number of occasions and as the president has made clear, no one anticipates or wants a government shutdown," said White House budget office spokesman Kenneth Baer.
After being blocked from passing a massive omnibus spending bill of their own last year, Democrats have agreed to a hard spending freeze at 2010 levels. That's significant because it would mean cuts to many domestic agencies in order to pay for budget increases for the Pentagon and the Veterans Administration. But it's far short of where House Republicans want to go.