A divided Congress is about to send President Barack Obama a stopgap funding bill to keep the government open for three more weeks in hopes that budget talks between the White House and Republicans in charge of the House start to bear fruit.
Thursday's measure includes $6 billion in cuts to domestic spending and would be shipped to Obama after a Senate vote that's likely to be overwhelmingly in favor. Some GOP conservatives are balking because they're seeking larger spending cuts and an immediate battle over the budget, but both Democratic and Republican leaders support the stopgap bill.
The measure would buy more time for talks between the administration and Capitol Hill Republicans on larger legislation to fund the day-to-day operations of the government through the Sept. 30 end of the budget year.
Negotiations have gotten off to a slow start, however, and there is a wide gulf over how much to cut from the budgets and over a number of controversial policy provisions, including cutting off taxpayer aid to Planned Parenthood, blocking a plan to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, and barring the government from shutting down mountaintop mines it believes will cause too much water pollution.
Both sides also say they're tired of running the government in two- and three-week installments and expectations are rising that a confrontation is looming when the stopgap measure runs out on April 8.
On Wednesday, Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky vowed to do everything in his power to make sure that Congress will adopt the Pentagon's budget when a stopgap funding bill runs out in April. McConnell said that while he'll support the three-week temporary spending measure in a vote this week, any further legislation to fund the government will have to include the $500 billion-plus Pentagon budget.
The Kentucky Republican also said House GOP leaders have assured him that any future government funding bill _ whether it's a full-year measure endorsed by President Barack Obama or yet another stopgap measure _ will contain the defense money. Such a scenario could give Republicans leverage since Democrats wouldn't want to be accused of blocking the Pentagon's budget.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has grown increasingly anxious for his agency's budget as a quarrel between Democrats and Republicans has led to an impasse over funding through September.
The stopgap measure passed the House Tuesday by a 271-158 vote despite opposition from some tea party-backed conservatives who said it "kicks the can down the road" instead of imposing steep and immediate spending cuts.
Fifty-four Republicans opposed the bill, which meant that Democratic support was required to pass it _ a prospect that GOP leaders must avoid to maintain leverage in future rounds.
The House vote seemed to give Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, a dilemma as he weighs how to pass future spending legislation. He could yield to conservatives and try to rally Republicans behind legislation that the White House won't accept, or he could negotiate with Democrats and anger core supporters in the tea party movement.
"The Republican leadership can cater to the tea party element and ... 'pick a fight' that will inevitably cause a shutdown," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. "Or the leadership can abandon the tea party in these negotiations and forge a consensus among more moderate Republicans and a group of Democrats."