Senate OKs $1.1 trillion spending bill

WASHINGTON — Congress gave final approval Thursday to a $1.1 trillion spending bill that eases sharp budget cuts known as the sequester and guarantees that the nation will not endure another government shutdown until at least Oct. 1.

After three years of politically bruising and economically damaging battles over the budget, the bipartisan agreement to fund federal agencies through the rest of the fiscal year passed with little fanfare.

The Senate voted 72 to 26 to approve the measure Thursday evening after Republicans persuaded Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to drop a last-minute push to force another showdown over the Affordable Care Act, reprising the fight that closed the government for 16 days last fall.

The House overwhelmingly passed the spending bill earlier this week. President Barack Obama is expected to sign it by Saturday to prevent agency offices, museums and national parks from locking their gates when the current temporary funding measures expires.

As they prepared to vote Thursday, Senate leaders were already anticipating the next deadline: raising the debt limit, the final fiscal hurdle that lawmakers must clear before they stand for midterm elections this fall.

So far, congressional Republicans have yet to settle on a strategy for handling the debt limit. And in sharp contrast to previous white-knuckle countdowns, no one seems to know even when, exactly, Congress needs to act.

Asked about the debt limit at a news conference Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., dismissed the question, saying the Treasury Department can manage until May without fresh borrowing authority. “This is not urgent,” Reid said. The statement contradicted the latest estimates from Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, who has warned lawmakers they need to act by late February — a warning he repeated Thursday before an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“If Congress is looking at the numbers the way we are — we have the best data — they would see that they would be looking more at the end of February than any time in March,” much less late spring, Lew said.

Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson quickly issued a correction, saying that “Senator Reid believes that the debt ceiling should be dealt with as soon as possible” and “takes Secretary Lew’s recommendations extremely seriously.”

Widespread uncertainty reigns as well among Republicans, who worry that action may not be needed until as late as May. That would put the unpopular vote to raise the debt limit smack in the middle of the primary season, when many Republican incumbents may be trying to fend off challengers from the right.

Congress agreed to suspend enforcement of the debt limit until Feb. 7 under last fall’s agreement to end the government shutdown, and the national debt currently stands at $17.2 trillion. Obama has said he will not negotiate over the debt limit. And after watching the party’s approval ratings tank in public-opinion polls, House GOP leaders hope to get through the next increase without provoking a crisis.

Still, House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have said Republicans will not agree to raise the debt limit without concessions on spending. That leaves House GOP leaders to come up with a debt-limit plan that can win Democratic support. House leadership aides say debt-limit strategy will be Topic A at the party’s retreat on Maryland’s Eastern Shore at the end of this month.

Meanwhile, Republicans are still clearly anxious about Cruz, who has been blamed for helping lead the party into the politically disastrous fight over the health-care law last October. After shutting down the government for 16 days in a failed bid to defund the law, Cruz and his allies relented as the need to raise the debt limit — and the prospect of a government default — approached.

On Thursday, Cruz agreed not to block the government funding bill, settling for the opportunity merely to complain about the Affordable Care Act. Republicans blame the law for causing insurance companies to cancel health policies for 4.7 million people.

“Last year, members of this body could say they didn’t know” about the harmful effects of the law, Cruz said in a speech on the Senate floor. “Now they know. And the response of the majority leader and Senate Democrats, tragically, is to do nothing.”

But his latest efforts suggested that Cruz may not be ready to let the debt limit go without a fight. And as Cruz’s fellow Texas Republican, Sen. John Cornyn, noted: “That’s the amazing thing about the Senate. It just takes one person to think it’s a good idea.”

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