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Now that the deadline for automatic spending cuts has passed and the cuts are taking effect, we move on to another fiscal deadline. By March 27th, Congress is supposed to pass a bill authorizing the government to keep running, what's called a Continuing Resolution. Without that, much of the government would shut down.
NPR's Ailsa Chang explains how it works and how it might soften the blow of the budget cuts.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: All the budget lingo flying around Capitol Hill these days could just about make someone's brain explode. Are those automatic spending cuts called sequester or sequestration? Does it matter? Maybe not, because now we're all supposed to be worried about the CR. Which, of course, as anyone on the street would instantly know, stands for Continuing Resolution. What is that?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Essentially just an extension of last year's budget into this year's budget, to make sure that basic government functions continue.
CHANG: Thank you President Obama for that translation. He was just trying to, as he put it...
OBAMA: Try, for our viewing audience, to make sure that we're not talking in Washington gobbledygook.
CHANG: Yeah, so much for that. So let's break down what this Continuing Resolution actually means. Every year, Congress has to set funding levels for agencies and departments. They're supposed to do this through appropriations bills, but when Congress can't agree, they punt by passing a Continuing Resolution. It's a stop-gap measure that allows Congress to just carry over the previous year's budget. And if Congress can't even do that, well, the government could simply shut down.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: I'm hopeful that we won't have to deal with the threat of a government shutdown, while we're dealing with the sequester at the same time.
CHANG: That's House speaker John Boehner. He and President Obama seem to agree they're not interested in that particular game of chicken. Lawmakers here are used to passing Continuing Resolutions. Over the past 40 years, the CR has been the standard way of doing business on Capitol Hill. But this time, there's a sequester in effect, so figuring out what a budget will look like under a Continuing Resolution is going to be messier.
STAN COLLENDER: What's going to happen in March is a new definition of the phrase March Madness.
CHANG: That's Stan Collender who's studied budget battles for years.
COLLENDER: It will have less to do with college basketball and a lot to do with craziness in Washington on budget-related issues.
CHANG: Collender says because the Continuing Resolution is legislation that's coming after the sequester, it could theoretically cancel or modify the sequester - if Congress and the White House can agree on something.
The House has just taken the first stab at a CR. The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee has introduced a bill that keeps the sequester in place, but re-allocates funding within the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments, to help cushion the impact of the cuts. It's a way for Chairman Hal Rogers to determine budget priorities rather than letting the White House do it. Of course, with so little money nowadays, what's the fun in even being appropriations chair?
REPRESENTATIVE HAL RODGERS: That is a really good question and I've asked myself that many thousands of times. I've renamed the committee the House Dis-Appropriations Committee because all we're doing, really, is cutting.
CHANG: Rogers says actually reversing the sequester will take a lot more than letting some departments reallocate money. It will likely include a mix of tax reform and cuts to entitlements, like Medicare and Social Security. That stuff, Rogers says, is above his pay grade. The president and party leadership will have to hash that one out.
Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.
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