US Senate approves stop-gap funding bill

A divided US Senate came together Wednesday to approve legislation that avoids a government shutdown, with a compromise stopgap measure likely headed to the president's desk this week.

The sweeping fiscal year 2013 spending bill that funds day-to-day government operations through the end of September easily passed 73-26, after Senate leaders cut a deal on amendments to the legislation.

It allows senators to turn to the all-important debate over the 2014 budget, which began in earnest on the chamber's floor just minutes after passage of the funding measure.

"This is a very good day for the Senate," Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid told his colleagues. "Legislation is the art of compromise."

Reid and his Republican counterpart, Senator Mitch McConnell, coordinated to break a logjam that threatened to delay the much-needed bill into next week's congressional recess, jeopardizing the operations of government if President Barack Obama does not sign the legislation by March 27.

The bill, known as a continuing resolution, now goes to the House, where aides said it was expected to pass as early as Thursday.

The Republican-led House took the lead with its initial bill that largely kept in place the effects of billions of dollars in automatic budget cuts.

The Senate did not overturn the cuts, leaving in place the five percent budget pinch to domestic agencies and eight percent slash to the Pentagon.

But in a bid to soften the blow of the cuts, it more carefully detailed the spending allocations for a majority of government agencies, including the departments of justice, commerce and homeland security.

One adopted Senate amendment shifted some $55 million to federal meat inspectors to ensure the continued operation of US food plants, which are required to shut down if there are no inspectors.

Another amendment aimed to keep air traffic control towers at rural airports financed under the budget cuts did not make it to the floor for a vote.

Senator John Cornyn, who voted for the bill along with 19 other fellow Republicans, acknowledged imperfections but said the measure "represents the first modest step toward reining in wasteful, Washington spending."

The next step is expected to be more contentious, with the political rivals clashing over their versions of the 2014 budget as they lay out their spending vision for the next decade.

The House is expected to pass a budget resolution this week put forward by Congressman Paul Ryan, last year's failed GOP vice presidential nominee, that slashes federal spending, reforms entitlements and insists on no new taxes.

Senate Democrats are pushing for what they describe as a balanced approach to deficit reduction, including targeted spending cuts and new tax revenue to help slash the $16 trillion national debt.

Ryan has argued his budget will balance within 10 years, while his Republicans blasted the Democratic plan as a tax-and-spend pipe dream that would not eliminate annual deficits.

"The Senate Democrat budget wouldn't balance, ever. Not in 2013. Not in 2023. Not in 3023," McConnell said Wednesday.