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Budget battle

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President Obama and congressional Republicans are gearing up for the next major budget battle that could have a more immediate impact than the cuts that will be slowly implemented over the next few months under the sequester. The White House and Congress have until March 27 to agree on a continuing resolution to keep the government running through the end of the fiscal year or shut down non-essential government operations.

The House last week passed its version of a stop-gap bill to fund essential government operations through Sept. 30 with the Democratic-controlled Senate expected to pass its proposal this week. Both proposals revisit the $85 billion sequester cuts rippling through the economy now. The House plan would maintain all of the cuts, but it addresses a major criticism of sequestration by giving the Pentagon more flexibility in making $46 billion of cuts required in the across-the-board sequester. Democrats object that the GOP bill does not allow the same flexibility on domestic programs and are likely to include more domestic funding in the Senate’s continuing resolution.

However, Speaker John Boehner warned Democrats against loading up the GOP bill with “extraneous provisions and partisan riders.”

The White said it was “deeply concerned” about the GOP plan but stopped short of a threat of veto as President Obama shifted tactics in his standoff with Republicans with talk of working with Congress “to refine the legislation.” Toward that goal, he dined last week with Republican lawmakers and plans to make unusual trips to Capitol Hill to meet with congressional lawmakers in both parties. Republicans, though, remain wary of the president’s charm offensive.

President Obama and Congress have until March 27 to find agreement on a continuing resolution, but the timeline could be shortened by congressional plans to begin the Easter recess March 22.

Given the consequences of a shutdown, both sides say they want a continuing resolution. The federal government shut down twice when President Clinton and congressional Republicans could not agree on continuing resolutions. The first shutdown in November 1995 lasted for six days; the second beginning in mid-December 1995 lasted for 21 days into January 1996. During that time hundreds of thousands of government workers were furloughed with political consequences for both sides, but more so for Republicans.

A continuing resolution or short-term funding bill is an admission of failure by Congress to do its job and pass a federal budget. However, brinkmanship has become common in Washington as Democrats and Republicans pushed the deadline to avoid the January fiscal cliff with tax increases on wealthy Americans but failed to prevent sequestration.

There is no excuse for repeating that pattern with the continuing resolution. Experience from the Clinton administration and threat to the ongoing economic recovery should be an incentive for the White House and Congress to find a workable compromise before Congress leaves town to keep government functioning through Sept. 30, when they should have a budget.

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