WASHINGTON — Congress passed a spending bill Thursday that will keep the federal government running through the end of September and provide some flexibility for implementing $85 billion in across-the-board budget cuts required under sequestration.
Three Arkansas congressmen voted with the House majority in a 318-109 vote in final legislative action on the bill after agreeing to amendments the Senate approved Wednesday. They included one offered by U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., meant to keep federal meat inspectors on the job who otherwise faced furloughs.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had indicated that furloughing food safety inspectors might be necessary for his agency to achieve savings required under mandatory across-the-board cuts included in a 2011 congressional deal to raise the debt ceiling. USDA needs to reduce its budget by $2 billion.
Arkansas could be hit particularly hard if the 6,000 meat safety inspectors face furloughs because poultry and other processors cannot operate without them in the plant.
The $1 trillion spending bill now heads to President Barack Obama, who has indicated he will sign it into law. The federal government has been operating under a series of short-term spending resolutions. The latest one expires on March 27.
Reps. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, and Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, voted for the spending bill. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, voted against it.
Congress managed to approve the bill without engaging in the partisan brinkmanship common in the last session. But partisanship quickly returned as House Republicans and Senate Democrats took up distinctly different budget resolutions for the 2014 fiscal year.
House Republicans on Thursday approved a budget resolution, 221-207, that would balance the budget in a decade, repeal Obamacare and overhaul Medicare. No Democrat supported it. Ten Republicans, including Crawford, voted against it.
The Senate, meanwhile, began debate on a Democratic proposal that would repeal the automatic spending cuts required under sequestration and instead reduce the deficit by $1.85 trillion over 10 years by increasing taxes and cutting spending - in equal portions. A final vote on the Senate resolution is not expected until late Friday.
Passage of the House budget resolution sparked an immediate wave of partisan spin aimed at the 2014 elections.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee issued statements attacking Cotton for his vote. Cotton, a freshman, is being touted by some conservatives as a potential challenger to Pryor next year.
"Arkansans deserve to know that under Cotton’s anti-Medicare plan, seniors would pay more for health care and millions would be forced onto a voucher program when they retire. Cotton’s support for the Republican plan isn’t just dangerous for seniors, it’s devastating for all Arkansans — putting tax breaks for millionaires and special interests ahead of creating jobs and making college more affordable," said DSSC spokesman Justin Barasky.
Candace Martin, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Arkansas, issued a statement blasting Griffin, Womack and Cotton for voting for the budget resolution crafted by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
"It’s time for Arkansas’ congressmen to stand up to Paul Ryan and the GOP who have chosen to slash taxes for the wealthiest Americans while forcing dramatic cuts to programs benefiting the middle class, seniors and vulnerable Americans, making it tougher for middle class Arkansans who work hard and play by the rules to get ahead," she said.
Cotton defended the budget resolution, saying it is designed to avoid the kind of debt crisis now facing Europe.
"If that were to happen, not only would it impact families all across the country when their interest rates for mortgages, and farms, and small businesses and education increases, but it would also crowd out all other kinds of priorities in our federal budget," Cotton said.
Womack called the resolution an important step in getting Washington spending under control.
"It not only balances in 10 years, but also fosters a healthier economy and creates jobs," he said.
Griffin said it would "protect vital programs like Medicare for folks like my own mom and preserve them for their grandkids too."
In voting against the Ryan plan, Crawford said he could only support a permanent plan to balance the budget.
"Congress has made numerous attempts to control spending with non-binding budget resolutions and deficit control acts, yet debt has skyrocketed," he said. "It is time to wake up to the harsh reality that another non-binding budget resolution is doomed to the same failed result that previous resolutions yielded — a short-term sugar high from temporary deficit reduction followed by rapidly growing debt and entitlement spending."