With a midnight deadline looming on Friday, the Senate voted, 91-9, to pass a stopgap funding measure Wednesday to keep the federal government operating through March 18. Because the House approved the same bill Tuesday, it immediately went to President Obama for his signature.
The legislation, known as a continuing resolution (CR), will keep the lights on at federal agencies for the next two weeks while also retroactively cutting $4 billion from 2010 federal spending levels. The cuts had broad support because they took money from sources that Obama has already proposed to cut, such as earmarks and highway funding.
The president said he was glad to get the bipartisan bill, "but we cannot keep doing business this way. Living with the threat of a government shutdown every few weeks is not responsible, and puts our economic programs in jeopardy." Obama said he wants congressional leaders from both parties to begin meeting immediately with Vice President Joe Biden and other top administration aides to find "common ground on a budget that makes sure we are living within our means."
The landslide Senate vote on the short-term measure did little to bring Democrats and Republicans closer together on the larger questions of how to fund the government through the end of the year -- and which federal programs Congress should cut to do it. That's what Obama wants to talk about.
"This is a battle of the philosophies about policies -- where do we stand?" said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) before the vote.
Signaling the lines that will be drawn in the budget fights ahead, Lautenberg and other Democrats warned this week that Republicans, and the House majority in particular, are using the country's budget crisis to push their own conservative political agendas.
"We cannot permit these programs that are the heart and soul of our democratic society to be swept away by the position they take as auditors. This isn't an accounting office," Lautenberg said. "That's not what we're about. We're about helping people that need the help."
Before Wednesday's vote, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) accused Republicans of financing tax cuts for the wealthy and also wars abroad at the expense of lower-income groups.
"Are we going to balance the budget on the backs of the middle class?" Sanders asked on the Senate floor. "On the backs of the poor? On the backs of the poor, the elderly and the sick?"
But the Senate's budget hawks, both Democrats and Republicans, said that the current debate over $4 billion, or even $100 billion, in cuts is only a small part of the looming budget crisis the country is facing in the future.
"We cannot continue to go in the direction we're going," said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). "The bill that the House sent us is a step in the right direction, but is far less than what is needed based on what's in front of us."
Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), the top Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, agreed: "We've got a $14 trillion debt, and what is all the energy and the focus on? A $4 billion question. What is wrong with this picture? We need a package, not of $4 billion but of $4 trillion."
Congressional negotiators will now turn their sights to hammering out a longer-term agreement and begin the difficult work of finding more money to slice out of the federal government at a time when demand for government services like Medicaid, jobless benefits and Social Security programs is at an all-time high.
Clues as to where Republicans are likely to suggest cuts came in a bill the House passed last month -- one the Senate has not yet considered -- to slash nearly $61 billion from the federal budget for the rest of the year, including money for programs favored by Democrats, such as Planned Parenthood, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the recently passed health care reform law.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called those cuts "terribly mischievous and wrong-headed, wrong-sighted."
But Senate Republicans insisted the cuts are necessary, and the process of slashing the federal budget is just getting started.
"You could argue that $4 billion in the context of an over-$3 trillion budget is not a lot of money," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said. "It is at least the first time since I've been here that I can recall cutting anything of any consequence. And I hope that's the beginning of a trend."