Houses Passes Resolution To Keep Government Funded Through September

The House passed a bill extending the federal government's spending authority through the end of September on Wednesday, while keeping the bottom line cuts required by the sequester that just took effect. Tamara Keith talks to Audie Cornish about what it means in the ongoing battles over federal spending.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Most of Washington, D.C. has a snow day, thanks to a storm that's been dubbed the Snowquester. But at the capitol, members of congress are at work on a spending measure known as the continuing resolution. They're trying to avoid a government shutdown at the end of the month and it also looks like broader budget discussions are heating back up. The president has invited a number of Republican senators out to dinner tonight to talk.

We're joined now from the capitol by NPR's Tamara Keith. And Tamara, let's start with these efforts to avoid a government shutdown. The House earlier today passed this continuing resolution to keep the government funded through the end of September. What does this bill look like and how is it being received in the Senate?

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Well, this basically just extends last year's spending levels forward through the end of this year. But then it overlays the sequester on top of that. That's the automatic across-the-board spending cuts. They remain in place. On defense and veterans affairs, this bill adds some new flexibility but it locks in place those meat cleaver style cuts for the rest of the budget. Democrats in the Senate want to get some of that flexibility and spread it around to other parts of the government, some domestic programs, and basically put their imprint on the bill.

But they're not planning to try to undo the sequester or restore funding. And so that greatly reduces the chance of some big fight and greatly increases the likelihood that this government shutdown talk is just going to quietly fade away.

CORNISH: Meantime, we're hearing the White House doing something - President Obama doing something he hasn't done a lot of, having dinner with about a dozen Senate Republicans. So, I got to know, who's on the guest list, what's on the agenda?

KEITH: It's an interesting mix of senators, from known dealmakers to far-right conservatives who don't typically have much nice to say about the president. And we tracked them down in the halls of the Senate today and they all seem to be approaching the dinner with an open mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF SENATOR ATTENDEES)

SENATOR BOB CORKER: Forget the dinner and all of those kind of things. I do sense there's a window of opportunity between...

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: We need to have this dialogue. I'm glad the president is doing it.

SENATOR RON JOHNSON: This is the start of a very robust process moving forward.

SENATOR TOM COBURN: Anytime somebody'll feed me I'm looking forward to...

SENATOR SAXBY CHAMBLISS: It's going to be an interesting dinner but I appreciate him at least reaching out and making the effort.

KEITH: That was attendees - future attendees Bob Corker of Tennessee, John McCain from Arizona, Ron Johnson from Wisconsin, Tom Coburn from Oklahoma and Georgia's Senator Saxby Chambliss. And as for what's on the agenda, it's the big deal. It's the - this thing that's proven elusive through all of these various rolling crises and negotiations, a big deficit reduction deal with a mix of savings from entitlement programs and new revenue through tax increases and closing loopholes.

It's what the president says he wants. It's what members of Congress say they want. And this is yet another attempt to get that conversation going.

CORNISH: The thing is, leading up to the fiscal cliff and the sequester, the president was traveling all around the country, you know, basically saying I'm going to take my case to the American people. And here we are with this new approach, a king of charm offensive? I mean, what's behind this?

KEITH: Well, a White House aide tells me this isn't a new strategy. It's just a new tactic. The president is planning to continue traveling around but he also clearly thinks it will be helpful to sit down with members of Congress and have some direct conversations. A lot of Republicans don't believe he's willing to cut entitlements. For instance, even though he has a plan on his website that clearly says he will, I've spoken to Republicans again and again who say they don't believe he'll do it.

So this dinner will give him a chance to look these senators in the eye and tell them that he means it. And if a big deal is the goal, if undoing the sequester is the goal, then traveling around the country and only talking to leadership hasn't really worked for the president. With this dinner and with other recent conversations, the president is trying to go around the leadership right to the people who eventually could be voting on this deal he says he wants.

CORNISH: Of course, much more to come with the House and Senate budget committees rolling out their budgets next week. Tamara, thanks so much for talking with us.

KEITH: All budget all the time. Thank you.

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