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Congress passes spending bill amid doubts. How much does it actually cut?

The House and Senate Thursday passed the spending bill for fiscal year 2011, averting a government shutdown and putting its seal on the deal agreed to by President Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, and Senate majority leader Harry Reid last Frid

The House and Senate Thursday passed the spending bill for fiscal year 2011, averting a government shutdown and putting its seal on the deal agreed to by President Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, and Senate majority leader Harry Reid last Friday.

But no one was running victory laps.

Getting to a bipartisan deal to cut $38.5 billion in spending took more than six months and, at the end, weeks of intense staff negotiation. By Thursday afternoon, however, many House Republicans were wondering if it had all been for nothing.

A report released Wednesday by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office suggested that the deal cuts a measly $352 million from spending in the current fiscal year, not $38.5 billion. The main reason for the discrepancy, according to the CBO: Many of the cuts involve money that wasn’t going to be spent this year anyway.

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In the end, House Republicans needed votes from Democrats to pass the bill, which passed 260 to 167, with 59 GOP conservatives opposing the bill and 81 Democrats supporting it. The Senate bill passed 81 to 19, with 15 Republicans, three Democrats and one Independent voting in opposition.

Some lawmakers balked at a $2.5 billion “cut” from highway funding that is already blocked from being spent, for example. Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma found in the fine print a cut of $4.8 billion in unspent money from a victim’s compensation fund.

“That isn’t even government money,” he said, before voting no on the measure.

Boehner fires back

Speaker Boehner has been forced to hit back at the critics.

“There are some who claim the spending cuts in this bill aren’t ‘real,’ that they’re ‘gimmicks.’ I just think it’s total nonsense,” Boehner said before a vote on the bill. “A cut is a cut.”

On the floor of the House, he sought to sway skeptical conservatives about the bill’s fiscal impact.

“Every dime in this bill that is cut is a dime that Washington will spend if we leave it on the table,” Boehner said. “If you vote ‘no’ on this bill, you’re voting to do exactly that, leaving this money on the table to be spent by unelected bureaucrats.”

Boehner said that these changes in so-called “budgetary authority,” when fully implemented and repeated year after year, would reduce the deficit by $315 billion over the coming decade – “the largest non-defense discretionary cut in the history of our country.”

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The speaker acknowledged that the cuts aren’t as big as many Republicans hoped for, but he said they would help pave the way for deeper and longer-term spending reforms in his party’s “path to prosperity” budget for 2012.

“Listen, this bill is not perfect. No cause for celebration. This is just one step. And the next step will come tomorrow when the House votes on Chairman Ryan’s budget, the path to prosperity,” he added.

Of the Republicans who went along, many echoed Boehner’s reasoning.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly a long way from what they used to do around here, which is to spend more money,” said freshman Rep. Lou Barletta (R) of Pennsylvania. “As a former mayor, seeing those community development block grants cut were painful to me, but we’ve made it clear that this reckless spending binge we’ve been on is over.

‘Slow, sad, silly’ process

To liberal critics, the CBO estimates suggest that Republicans brought the government to the brink of a shutdown – potentially disrupting the economy via fallout such as a stoppage of federal paychecks – for savings that measure only in the millions dollars.

“Here ends the slow, sad, silly FY 2011 appropriations process,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D) of Ohio, who opposed the bill on the grounds that the cuts would hurt jobs. “Ironically, the largest cuts are in transportation and housing at a time when 40 percent of the building trades are out of work,” she said after the vote.

Some conservative economists side with Boehner in looking at the spending cut glass as half-full.

Whether the cuts are reductions in appropriations or rescissions of unspent money, both have the effect of reducing the government’s authority to spend, says Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the conservative American Action Forum. In a blog post Wednesday he called the affair a “tempest in a teapot.”

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“Ironically, budgeting, which we tend to think of as very precise, is an art, rather than a science,” says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont-McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. “A rough analogy is that ‘budget authority’ is opening the checking account, and outlay is writing the check. If you’re interested in what the government actually spends, you need to look at outlays.”

• Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.