Washington Digest: Votes keep government going, Congress talking

WASHINGTON -- The government continues to operate -- at least for another two weeks -- after Congress compromised last week on a short-term spending bill to fund federal departments.

The House and Senate approved a temporary spending bill covering through March 18, after agreeing to include $4 billion in reductions as a nod to Republicans who viewed the measure as a vehicle to shrink the government.

Targeted in the cuts were several small education programs that the Obama administration had declared to be duplicative and unnecessary, plus earmarked projects for which money was not being spent.

Passage of a two-week "continuing resolution" was aimed at buying time for the administration and congressional leaders to reach a deal on legislation that would fund the government through September, the end of the 2011 fiscal year.

Congress didn't complete any of its work last year on appropriations bills, setting the stage for the current impasse over spending. If lawmakers fail by March 18, it could force the government to discontinue "nonessential services" until the situation is fixed.

The Senate passed the two-week extension by a 91-9 vote. Sens. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and John Ensign, R-Nev., voted for the extension.

The House passed the extension, 335-91. Reps. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., and Dean Heller and Joe Heck, both R-Nev., voted for it.

Dissenters included lawmakers who protested the $4 billion in cuts. They argued the bill was setting the stage for deeper cuts that would jeopardize economic recovery.

Paperwork burden eased

The House voted to repeal a section of the health reform law that had drawn the ire of many businesses.

In an effort to crack down on tax cheats, the bill required companies to fill out a 1099 tax form each year for every vendor who is paid more than $600. But businesses said it posed an unfair paperwork burden.

Lawmakers voted 314-112 to eliminate the regulations. Most all of them supported the repeal, but many Democrats complained about how the bill would offset the projected $19 billion in lost revenue.

The health care law allows the government to retrieve overpayments of tax credits given to poor families to buy health insurance. The new offset raises the income level of families affected by the retrievals, amounting to what Democrats called a tax increase on the middle class.

Republicans disputed that characterization, saying the government would be merely recapturing excess payments.

Berkley, Heller and Heck voted to repeal the regulation.

budget resolution SHELVED

Freshman Republican Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Mike Lee of Utah proposed a nonbinding resolution calling on Congress to pass a constitutional amendment requiring the federal budget to be balanced.

Toomey argued the time was ripe for the constitutional change, which he said "would provide the kind of fiscal straitjacket this government clearly needs."

The resolution was proposed as an amendment to a patent reform bill. The bill's manager, Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., argued it was not relevant to the bill and should be turned down.

The vote in favor of the resolution was 58-40, but 60 votes were needed for it to advance. Ensign voted for the resolution. Reid voted against it.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.