- Congress tries to lock in a spending plan for the rest of the current fiscal year
- It includes new budgets at the Pentagon and elsewhere to ease the impact of forced cuts
- Two veteran GOP senators want to cut what they call wasteful spending from the plan
- The Senate version is likely to pass the House if it remains relatively unchanged
Members of Congress will try this week to lock in a spending plan while softening the blow of sweeping, forced cuts -- a goal that must be reached in coming days to avoid a partial government shutdown.
The measure, called a continuing resolution, authorizes government funding for the remaining six months of the fiscal year. Current spending authorization expires March 27.
Complicating the debate are $85 billion in government-wide spending cuts -- known as sequestration in Washington jargon -- that took effect March 1.
They originally were intended to force Congress to compromise on a broad deficit- reduction plan. But that proved impossible due to the political impasse between Democrats and Republicans over taxes and spending that has created one fiscal crisis after another in Washington and derailed the budget process.
Congress is now under pressure to reach agreement on a stop-gap spending plan before beginning a two-week break Friday for the Easter and Passover holidays.
If all goes according to plan, the Democratic-controlled Senate will pass a spending resolution early in the week that also will ease the impact of the sequester cuts. The GOP-run House of Representatives will then back the measure on Thursday, sending it to President Barack Obama to be signed into law.
The Senate proposal cleared an important procedural hurdle on Monday, setting up a path for a final vote. It still was unclear whether the chamber would ultimately consider any amendments.
Conservative Republicans have criticized what they call wasteful pork-barrel spending in the proposal.
Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma have questioned the inclusion of $154 million in Pentagon alternative energy research funding, $120 million for infrastructure improvements in Guam, and $65 million for Pacific coast salmon restoration.
"The bill contains numerous examples of egregious pork barrel projects," McCain said last week, while Coburn added that "the inconvenience we may feel as senators as we cast tough votes is nothing compared to the struggles millions of families in America experience each day because of our failure to manage their resources wisely."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, warned that senators had so far been unable to agree to limit the number amendments.
He said the Senate would stay in session "as long as it takes" to finish the spending plan as well as a budget blueprint for fiscal 2014 -- "even if that means working into the weekend and the Easter/Passover recess."
The House passed its own version of the continuing resolution that included the forced spending cuts, but provided some leeway for the military and the Veterans Affairs administration to lessen their impact.
The compromise Senate version was put together primarily by Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top members of the Appropriations Committee.
It reduces the impact of the forced spending cuts beyond the military and the Veterans Affairs administration by also establishing new budgets for the rest of fiscal year 2013 at the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Homeland Security and Justice, as well as NASA.
That means those departments and programs would operate off of revised spending levels from fiscal year 2012, as originally planned.
In its current form, the compromise bill would lock in a total of $984 billion in federal spending through the end of September -- a notable drop from the $1.043 trillion initially approved before the forced cuts of sequestration took effect.
By establishing new budgets for the targeted departments and programs, the bipartisan proposal resets priorities and helps better manage the across-the-board formula of the sequestration cuts.
"At a time when many doubt whether Congress can accomplish anything at all, this agreement is a very clear demonstration of our commitment to work together," said Shelby, the GOP sponsor.
A senior congressional GOP aide told CNN last week that the House will probably approve the plan if senators don't change it because the measure keeps the $85 billion in forced sequestration cuts.
The bill also lacks new funds for Obama's health care reform or the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory reform law, the aide noted. Both were opposed by Republicans and remain top targets of conservative attempts to defund and weaken them.
In addition, the Senate compromise keeps federal pay freezes intact while maintaining tight congressional control over agency budgets, which also are key priorities for conservatives.