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Senate approves bill to prevent government shutdown

By Alan Silverleib, CNN Congressional Producer
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed March 20, 2013
  • Compromise bill also lessens severity of forced government spending cuts
  • Congress hopes to get legislation to President Obama's desk this week
  • Lawmakers face a March 27 deadline to approve government funding through September
  • Senate bill would lock in $984 billion in spending for the next six months

Washington (CNN) -- The Senate approved legislation on Wednesday that would fund the government through the end of September and avoid a partial federal shutdown, as well as soften the blow of sweeping spending cuts.

The measure, which passed the chamber in a 73-26 vote, now advances to the House.

Leaders of the Senate, run by Democrats, and the Republican-controlled House hope to avoid another saga like the fiscal showdowns that have come to define dysfunction in Congress.

"I hope that this practical, commonsense leadership will be a good sign for ... other things in the future," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada. "The work done by (the managers of the bill) should be and it is exemplary for what needs to follow."

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Lawmakers want to get the bill, known as a continuing resolution, to President Barack Obama's desk before leaving Washington for a two-week holiday break starting on Friday.

Failure to enact the measure before March 27 would result in a partial shutdown of federal agencies and other programs.

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There has been a cavernous political divide between Democrats and Republicans over the role of government spending, taxes and the best way to deal with deficits and debt.

Lawmakers, however, want to find a way to lessen the impact of $85 billion in sweeping, automatic spending cuts that took effect at the beginning of this month after Congress failed to agree on a comprehensive approach for reducing the deficit.

Earlier this month, the House passed its own spending plan that incorporated the cuts -- known as sequestration -- but provided some leeway for the military and the Veterans administration.

The compromise Senate version, crafted primarily by Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski and Alabama Republican Richard Shelby, further reduces the impact of forced austerity by establishing stop-gap budgets for the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Homeland Security and Justice, as well as NASA.

In its current form, the compromise bill would lock in $984 billion in spending -- a notable drop from the $1.043 trillion initially approved before the forced sequestration cuts took effect.

A senior congressional GOP aide told CNN last week the House will probably approve the plan absent significant changes.

The head of the House Appropriations Committee -- Kentucky GOP Rep. Harold Rogers -- agreed, telling CNN Wednesday that the bill's "in good shape" and the threat of a government shutdown is "off the table."

By establishing new budgets for the targeted departments and programs, the bipartisan Senate proposal resets priorities and helps better manage the draconian formula of the spending cuts.

Despite the bill's bipartisan nature, several senators were unhappy with their inability to offer amendments.

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, forced an extension of debate after being denied a vote on an amendment to protect rural airport control towers from closure due to the cuts.

"It's always difficult to attribute motives but as I talk to my colleagues, the only explanation I ever get that has any semblance of truth is there is a point to be made here," Moran said. "By denying the amendment's passage, we prove that sequestration can't work, that we can't cut money from budgets."

Obama administration officials have vehemently denied any political motivation to the cuts, arguing that their hands are tied by the across-the-board nature of the sequester.

Some conservative Republicans argue that, despite the cuts, the legislation is still loaded with wasteful spending.

Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, for example, 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.

McCain told CNN on Tuesday, however, that he would not stand in the way of final passage of the measure.

"I'm ready to vote right away," he said. "I've made my point. I've made my speech. I've done what I can and I'm ready to move forward."

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CNN's Ted Barrett, Tom Cohen, and Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report

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