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With votes today, Congress is already priming for next budget fight in fall

WASHINGTON — It’s official, we have a deal.

The House voted today to approve a compromise Fiscal 2011 budget, and the threat of a government shutdown that was less than two hours away at one point last week is now banished until well into football season.

The final vote was 260-167, with 59 Republicans voting no and 81 Democrats voting yes. In the Minnesota delegation, Republicans John Kline, Erik Paulsen and Democrats Betty McCollum, Collin Peterson and Tim Walz voted in favor, while Democrat Keith Ellison and Republicans Michele Bachmann and Chip Cravaack voted no.

The Senate is expected to approve the deal by a wide margin later today.

“Gotta get it done,” Peterson said before the vote, while Paulsen afterward hailed what he said was the start of a process to end the “wasteful spending spree and changing the culture of bloated bureaucracy that has plagued Washington for too long.”

“Some of the rail money, some of those types of things I wasn’t happy about, but we were able to protect some veterans issues, some of the research dollars that we wanted to see there,” said Walz. “It’s just a compromise.”

“I don’t think this gets better,” said Kline of the deal. “The alternative is shutdown, and I think it’s almost unconscionable that we would have troops in combat and their families wouldn’t get paid.”

Uncertainty until the final minutes
In the last 24 hours before the vote, momentum started moving away from a deal. Most of that came because of an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, which showed the deal would cut just $352 million more this year — far below the $38.5 billion promised — once you started excluding funds that weren’t going to get spent anyways.

In addition, Tim Pawlenty’s statement late Wednesday that the deal didn’t go far enough and should be rejected began providing cover for lawmakers who weren’t sure about the deal but didn’t want to buck their leadership to only stand alongside the very right wing of their caucus.

“There was a rising perception that the cuts that were negotiated weren’t real cuts — they’re real cuts,” said Kline. By GOP estimates, they got $40 billion from current-level spending, more than $78 billion from President Obama’s FY 2011 budget, and $315 billion over 10 years. Several Republicans added that cutting spending from programs where it might not be spent is still a cut, because it ensures the money won’t be spent.

“That’s a very, very good deal when you consider that we have the majority in one half of the [Congress], and Harry Reid is still the Senate majority leader and Barack Obama’s still the president,” Kline said.

It became so much of a problem that reports began surfacing that Republican leaders were crossing the aisle and asking for additional Democratic votes, just in case their caucus strayed from the party line. Dems responded by putting out a few statements of support but also holding back several of their own voters until the undecided Republicans made their support or opposition official.

Among Minnesotans, Keith Ellison and Michele Bachmann were always going to be no votes on this — Ellison, because he said the cuts would hurt too much (“No way to Win the Future,” he tweeted), and Bachmann because it doesn’t cut out implementation of the health reform law.

Cravaack’s decision came down to the wire. He had voted for the one-week continuing resolution last week but always maintained he’d need to read the final bill before deciding on it.

Hours before the vote, as Cravaack walked from the Capitol to his office in the Longworth building, he described his voting dilemma.

He believed House Speaker John Boehner had gotten the best deal possible, but after seeing a Congressional Budget Office report that said the plan would cut just $300 million this year, he had his doubts it was good enough. Calls coming in from the 8th District were running solidly against the compromise deal, he said.

Republican leaders held meetings with House freshmen, including Cravaack, to try and persuade them about the merits of the bill. However, later on, Republicans realized they had the votes to pass this and the pressure eased up. Speaker John Boehner, rather than spending his last minutes before the votes whipping the caucus for support, went out onto a balcony near the House floor and had a cigarette.

Cravaack eventually voted no. In the end, he said, the cuts simply weren’t deep enough.

“This long-term bill to fund the federal government moves the ball in the right direction and stands in stark contrast to the free spending ways of the most recent Congresses,” he said in a statement after the vote. “However, it simply does not go far enough in addressing America’s dire fiscal situation. We must act decisively to protect the economic health of our country, especially for future generations of Minnesotans. I do not believe this legislation made sufficient cuts, therefore I was unable to support it.”

On to the next one
The legislation moves on to the Senate now, where it is expected to pass easily, and then on to the president, who is expected to sign it. Once that happens, the government shutdown clock gets reset to 170 days — the time between now and when the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30.

“The government is funded through the end of September, and we can get on to what I feel is the real debate,” said Kline: the House GOP’s budget and the counterpoint laid out Wednesday by Obama.

The House is set to vote on the budget presented by Budget Chairman Paul Ryan Friday, and it’s expected to pass largely along party lines.

It will have a very rocky reception in the Democratic-held Senate, though, as Reid warned his colleagues across the dome that “the vote you’ll cast tomorrow presents a clear choice between millionaires and the middle class. Whose side are you on?”

 “It will also answer for the country this question: Are Republicans serious about reducing the deficit, or are they going to continue pretending we can do it without asking millionaires, billionaires and corporations to pay their fair share?” Reid said.

 “Our federal budget is like any family’s budget in that there are two columns: what we take in and what we spend. We can’t have a serious conversation about balancing the budget until Republicans stop pretending that the ledger has only one side.”

Folks, this next one is the big fight. It is a fight not about spending from Oct. 1, 2011, to Sept. 30, 2012, although that’s part of it. Rather, it’s about fundamental questions, in dollar form, of just what exactly the federal government’s role should be in the lives of the American people.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said today they’re ready to bring it on.

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