U.S. Senate leaders on Wednesday cleared roadblocks to a vote on legislation to avert a government shutdown next week, denying some senators' attempts to attach provisions that would shield pet programs from automatic spending cuts.
The Senate began considering a limited number of amendments on the stop-gap measure to keep the government running the rest of this fiscal year, before a vote on final passage later on Wednesday.
Government agencies and programs face a shutdown after March 27 when current spending authority expires, and Congress is scheduled to start a two-week recess on Friday.
Controversy over proposed amendments aiming to protect money for programs ranging from meat inspection to air traffic control also delayed the Senate's consideration of its first budget resolution in nearly four years.
Late last week, there were more than 100 proposed amendments to the budget resolution that would apply to the next fiscal year that starts on Oct. 1, including many requests to shift funds to ease effects of across-the-board cuts under the so-called "sequester."
But a deal reached between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell paved the way for consideration of just a handful of these proposals.
Republican Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas on Tuesday had tried to block Senate consideration of the spending bill for the rest of this fiscal year unless he was promised a vote on his proposal to shield air traffic controllers at small, rural airports from the spending cuts.
Moran's sparsely populated home state depends heavily on small airports and is home to several civil aircraft manufacturers. He said staff reductions or shutdowns of rural control towers would remove a critical safety layer in the air traffic control system.
"Once there is an accident, and somebody dies and a plane crashes, the question will always be 'what if there had been an air traffic control tower there? What if we had left the program in place?" Moran told the Senate.
Moran's amendment will not be considered, but the Senate approved a proposal to shift some $55 million in U.S. Department of Agriculture funds to prevent temporary layoffs of meat inspectors. A plan to shift some national parks-related funding to keep White House tours open was defeated.
The Senate funding measure keeps the $85 billion in sequester cuts for this year in place, but contains some updates to spending provisions for the military and some domestic agencies that allow more flexibility to help ease the cuts.
The measure would need to be approved again by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which had passed a much simpler version, giving additional spending flexibility just to military programs.
Once the temporary spending measure gets through Congress, the Senate will turn its attention to a Democratic-focused budget plan for next fiscal year that calls for raising nearly $1 trillion in new tax revenue, while replacing the sequester cuts and making some other modest spending cuts.
The Democratic plan, which also calls for $100 billion in new spending on infrastructure and job training, envisions annual U.S. deficits in the $400 billion to $600 billion range over the next 10 years.
It stands in stark contrast to the Republican budget now being debated in the House, which calls for deep cuts to social programs to reach a small surplus by 2023.
The budget blueprint does not carry the force of law, but sets a starting point for a new set of fiscal negotiations that could come to a head by early August, when current U.S. borrowing authority will be exhausted.