WASHINGTON -- House Republicans on Monday introduced a bill that would avoid a government shutdown at the end of March, but that also could mitigate some of the most striking effects of the across-the-board federal spending cuts enacted last week.
Although the proposed shifts would make the sequester slightly less indiscriminate -- particularly for the military -- the measure would leave in place the $85 billion spending reduction, locking in the cuts through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.
The funding resolution would, for example, bar U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement from defunding beds in detention facilities where illegal immigrants are being held. That proposal came after Republicans were angered when hundreds of illegal immigrants were released from holding facilities last week in anticipation of the cuts.
The measure also would provide $2 billion in new funding for embassy security, a response to a Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans were killed. And it would provide $129 million to help the FBI avoid reducing its staff because of sequestration.
Republicans propose to offset that money with cuts elsewhere, such as extending a salary freeze for federal workers and members of Congress. The freeze would stop a 0.5 percent pay raise for federal workers scheduled to take effect in April under an executive order from President Barack Obama.
These relatively modest changes amount to nibbling around the edges of the new austerity plan introduced by the sequester. But for much of the government, the resolution would largely keep spending priorities that had been in place for the fiscal year's first half -- then whack them by $85 billion, as Mr. Obama ordered Friday.
The proposal is likely to face a vote Thursday in the GOP-led House. If it passes, it will be up to Senate Democrats and Mr. Obama to decide whether to accept its terms: That would mean realizing that reductions they have said could devastate government services are here to stay.
On Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano set off a flurry of speculation that the administration was exaggerating the impact of sequestration after saying lines at some of the nation's busiest airports are "150 to 200 percent as long as we would normally expect."
The secretary cited Los Angeles and Chicago airports in her remarks at a breakfast sponsored by the online site Politico, hedging by saying she would have to check to be sure. By afternoon, Customs and Border Protection officials said in a statement that wait times had increased significantly Saturday at John F. Kennedy and Miami International airports, with some passengers waiting three hours or longer to clear customs.
Senate Democrats could seek to counter the House GOP move by allowing additional flexibility for mandated cuts in domestic programs, similar to what the House bill would extend to defense cuts. Senate Appropriations Committee chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said Monday that she was still reviewing the House proposal, but that she was optimistic that she could work with her House counterpart, Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., on a speedy agreement for the funding bill. "He's sensible, civil and pragmatic," she said.
Mr. Obama has signaled that he wants to avoid a government shutdown when the current funding expires March 27, and that he probably would accept a continuation plan that would let the sequester cuts remain in effect for the rest of the fiscal year.
Beyond that, he is likely to turn his attention to undoing the sequester as part of a broader deficit-reduction deal that would replace the current cuts with a combination of new tax revenue and reductions to entitlement programs. Health and retirement programs are the fastest-growing part of the federal budget, but they were shielded as part of the deal that created the sequester in the summer of 2011.
As for the $982 billion continuing resolution, its first test will be in the House later this week. GOP leaders will have to soothe anxious conservatives who had rallied around a $974 billion outlay as a ceiling for spending for the year and were surprised to see the bill introduced with $8 billion more. "There will be some of us very frustrated if we're suddenly creeping billions of dollars back into the bill," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz , R-Utah.
House Appropriations committee staffers will explain this morning at a closed-door session with Republicans that the measure fully implements sequestration, but the higher number is a more accurate reflection of its impact across all government programs.