WASHINGTON — The House approved legislation on Wednesday to avert a government shutdown late this month and give the Defense Department more leeway to absorb the spending cuts that went into effect last Friday.
By a vote of 267 to 151, the House sent the Senate a bill to fund the federal government from late March through September. Most Republicans voted for the bill, while a majority of Democrats opposed it.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Tulsa, was the only House member from Oklahoma who voted against the bill.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, who battled Democrats on the House floor for the better part of an hour, said the legislation locks in the spending cuts, known as the sequester, that took effect on March 1, but gives the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs the flexibility to maintain military capability and take care of retired service members.
The legislation gives a boost to the Defense Department's operations and maintenance account. That money is expected to temper some of the effects of the $46 billion in reductions the department must implement through Sept. 30. The department has warned that it would have to furlough most of its 800,000 civilian employees, including 24,000 in Oklahoma, and curtail training and maintenance.
The Senate is expected to approve its own funding bill to keep the government running past March 27 and may use that legislation to help other agencies absorb the cuts that just took effect.
Cole said he hoped the Senate would add other agencies to the bill, but he said Democrats shouldn't have any illusions that the across-the-board cuts would be eliminated. And he said new revenue is “off the table.”
“In the history of the United States, we will have more money to spend than we have ever spent before,” Cole said.
Some Democrats argued that the legislation approved Wednesday was inadequate to cover the needs of domestic agencies in the wake of the spending cuts.
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said agency budgets were being “slashed in a mindless, senseless way” and that Republicans were more interested in protecting tax loopholes used by oil companies than the 750,000 job losses predicted to result from the spending cuts.
Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said the bill would delay implementation of the health insurance exchanges that are being established as part of the health care bill passed in 2009.
The White House budget office issued a statement expressing concerns about the bill but stopping short of threatening a veto.
Most agencies “are left to operate at last year's level, which will impede their ability to provide services to Americans and efficiently allocate funding to key programs including those in infrastructure, clean energy, education, and research and development,” the White House statement says.
Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Westville, said the cuts would “rein in many out-of-control tentacles of the federal government such as the EPA and IRS.”
Mullin said, “I voted yes on this bill because it gives our military much-needed flexibility during sequestration and makes the spending cuts that are vital to finally balancing the budget permanent.”
In the history of the United States, we will have more money to spend than we have ever spent before.”
Rep. Tom Cole,,