WASHINGTON — Washington inched closer to avoiding a shutdown of the U.S. government, as the Republican-controlled House of Representatives approved legislation aimed at keeping the government open and lessening the impact of sharp spending cuts on the Defense Department.
The Senate will next take up the measure, which would renew federal funding after it expires on March 27.
Democrats who control the upper chamber hope to extend flexibility in carrying out US$85 billion in automatic, across-the-board spending cuts to departments other than defense and veterans affairs, which are protected in the Republican legislation.
The Obama administration and congressional Republicans have begun working together to ease the spending cuts’ impact. That marks a reversal for President Barack Obama, who spoke dismissively in recent days of Republican plans for flexibility in administering the cuts.
The cuts were designed to be so crude and controversial that the Obama administration and a bitterly divided Congress would be forced to find a better way to cut the federal deficit. That didn’t happen, leaving federal agencies with the onerous task of chopping the same rough percentage of their budgets, no matter their priority or efficiency.
Agency heads warned for weeks about the possible consequences. The military was the most vocal, and has embraced the idea of budget flexibility.
The Pentagon did not immediately say whether it also would be able to order the USS Harry S. Truman to the Persian Gulf region, a mission it announced earlier would fall victim to the cuts.
In another sign of efforts at bipartisanship, Obama hosted Republican senators for dinner at the White House on Wednesday. Obama had a good exchange of ideas with lawmakers, a White House official said after the dinner. Sen. John McCain, who was Obama’s 2008 opponent and among the guests, told a reporter that the meal went “just fine.”
The unusual gathering served as prelude to at least two trips to the Capitol in coming days as the chief executive meets with the rank and file of both parties in both houses.
Obama’s requests for meetings next week were confirmed by House Speaker John Boehner’s office and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office, which said Obama last attended the Senate Republicans’ policy lunch in May 2010.
But McConnell, Boehner and other members of the Republican leadership were left out of Wednesday’s dinner with Obama. They also didn’t make the list of Republican lawmakers Obama started calling over the weekend.
White House aides say the calls focus in part on kindling broader budget talks, but also on Obama’s proposals for overhauling the nation’s immigration laws and enacting stricter gun control measures.