WASHINGTON — The prospect of a government shutdown appeared more possible Saturday after the House passed a budget measure in the predawn hours that cuts $61 billion — and was immediately rejected by Senate Democrats and President Barack Obama.
The House plan, which was approved on a party-line vote at 4:40 a.m. after five days of debate, eliminates dozens of programs and offices while slashing agency budgets by as much as 40 percent. Federal funding for AmeriCorps and PBS would cease. Hundreds of millions would be cut from border security.
The debate over the size and scope of the government now moves to the Senate, where leaders have already said that the House plan cuts far too deep and that they are planning a far more modest proposal. But with the Senate out of session all next week, senators have left themselves just a few days to take up a bill before March 4, when the stopgap measure that is currently funding the government expires.
Given the tight time frame, it's unlikely the two chambers can agree on a compromise.
If they don't, the government will either shut down or congressional leaders will have to agree on another temporary measure, perhaps for as little as a couple of weeks.
But even that could be difficult. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said he won't approve another extension unless it also includes significant cuts. And it's unclear whether the scores of Republican freshmen who were elected last fall on their promise to dramatically downsize the federal government will agree to any sort of deal, particularly after insisting on the deep cuts agreed to Saturday.
"Nobody really knows where this is going from here," said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, who helped craft the $61 billion in cuts as a member of the Appropriations Committee.
For Boehner, Saturday's vote marked an early political victory, allowing his party to honor a 2010 campaign pledge to trim spending to 2008 levels.
"It's democracy in action," Boehner said in an impromptu, triumphal news conference off the House floor Friday night, when it was clear the bill would pass. "I'm proud of this vote," he added.
The bigger victors were the 87 Republican freshmen, whose dismissal of an earlier plan that would have cut about $35 billion led House leaders to quickly draw up the larger package of cuts.
Unshackled by Boehner's commitment to a freewheeling process, the freshmen dominated the floor Friday and Saturday morning in passing a series of amendments that moved the legislation further to the right, limiting the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to enforce clean-air standards and defunding the Consumer Product Safety Commission's ability to create a database of injuries.
All of the Republican freshmen supported the final legislation, including a couple of dozen from Midwestern states whose capitals are under siege from public worker unions protesting proposed cuts at the state level.
"We are committed to changing the status quo in Washington and restoring our fiscal stability," Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., a leader of the 2010 class, said after the vote.
What Boehner gained in credibility with the freshmen, though, he lost in terms of bipartisan outreach. Democrats, happy to be allowed to have votes on dozens of their own amendments, still unanimously rejected the final legislation. The final vote was 235-189; Republicans alone favored dramatic spending cuts, and three GOP representatives — two of whom thought the cuts didn't go deep enough — joined 186 Democrats in opposing the bill.
In an effort to appear frugal in their own right, Senate Democrats claim they plan to cut $41 billion. But that is based on Obama's 2011 budget proposal, which was never enacted. In real-world terms, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's budget would keep spending at current levels.
House leaders used this same math to claim that their $61 billion in cuts was equivalent to $100 billion, the amount Republicans pledged in their campaigns last fall.
Either way the numbers are counted, the two sides remain more than $60 billion apart.