House Republicans unveiled a stopgap measure today to fund the federal government through the rest of the fiscal year, a move intended to mollify a deeply divided Congress that has fought through three years of bruising budget battles.
The continuing resolution, known around Washington as a CR, is subject to sequestration levels in its entirety, setting the top-line overall rate of spending at $982 billion, down from $1.047 trillion the previous fiscal year.
The CR keeps the FY2012 spending level as a base for 10 out of 12 appropriations bills, but notably, the legislation includes a full-year Defense appropriations bill, as well as a full-year Military Construction/Veterans Affairs appropriations bill. These two measures, which are still subject to sequestration, were negotiated with broad bipartisan support even though they did not become law during the last session of Congress.
Aides on both sides of the aisle say the funding tactic enables lawmakers to respond to changing circumstances or address the funding priorities of an agency rather than rely on existing spending plans that may have become outdated or impractical.
"The legislation will avoid a government shutdown on March 27, prioritize DoD and Veterans programs, and allow the Pentagon some leeway to do its best with the funding it has," Rep. Hal Rogers, the chairman of the appropriations committee, wrote in a statement Monday. "This CR package is the right thing to do, and it's the right time to do it."
For example, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Congress the Pentagon has an $11 billion shortfall below the administration's request this year for the Operations and Maintenance section of the defense budget. To close that deficit, the Defense appropriations bill included in the CR takes about $7 billion from Research and Development and Procurement and increases the authority for Operations and Maintenance by about $10.4 billion.
While in practice the rebalanced money for Operations and Maintenance cushions the effect of the arbitrary sequestration cuts, aides say legislators drafting the bill did not write the bill with the intent to offset sequestration.
"It's just the right thing to focus on the core function of government: national security," one House Republican aide said. "An $11 billion shortfall [in Operations and Maintenance] affects readiness."
Democrats, however, contend that the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs are "not unique" to the funding challenges facing Washington. Rep. Nita Lowey, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said it is "extremely disappointing" that the CR locks most of the federal government into "outdated plans and spending levels."
"Governing by continuing resolution limits the ability of federal departments and agencies to respond to changing circumstances, implement laws enacted by Congress, eliminate unnecessary spending, and budget responsibly," said Lowey, D-N.Y. "It has an adverse effect on federal efforts to improve schools, health care, and homeland security; protect the environment; and create jobs and grow the economy."
The legislation also addresses an apparent need for increased security, identified after the Benghazi attack in Libya, by including a provision to increase the current level for embassy security by about $2 billion. The CR also provides additional funding for federal prisons and includes a provision requiring Immigration and Customs Enforcement "to sustain the mandated capacity of 34,000 detention beds."
It also extends the current pay freeze for federal employees, which includes members of Congress and Senators, even though President Obama has issued an executive order implementing a 0.5 percent pay increase.
Despite an impasse over sequestration last week, House Speaker John Boehner emerged from a meeting with President Obama and other congressional leaders Friday, assuring reporters that a government shutdown is not in the cards.
"The House is going to move a continuing resolution next week to fund the government past March 27, and I'm hopeful that we won't have to deal with the threat of a government shutdown while we're dealing with the sequester at the same time," Boehner, R-Ohio, said.
The bill is expected to be on the floor for debate on Wednesday and a vote on Thursday.