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To foil shutdown, Senate votes to OK hated budget cuts

– The Senate approved legislation Wednesday to lock in $85 billion in widely decried spending cuts aimed at restraining soaring federal deficits – and to avoid a government shutdown just a week away.

President Obama’s fellow Democrats rejected a call to reopen White House tours scrapped because of the tightened spending.

Federal meat inspectors were spared furloughs, but more than 100 small and medium air traffic facilities were left exposed to possible closure as the two parties alternately clashed and cooperated over proposals to take the edge off across-the-board spending cuts that took effect March 1.

Final House approval of the measure is likely as early as today. Obama’s signature is a certainty, meaning the cuts will remain in place at least through the end of the budget year Sept. 30 – even though he and lawmakers in both parties have criticized them as random rather than targeted.

Obama argued strongly against them in campaign-style appearances, predicting painful consequences, before they began taking effect, and Republicans objected to the effects on Pentagon spending.

Without changes, the $85 billion in cuts for the current year will swell to nearly $1 trillion over a decade, enough to make at least a small dent in economy-threatening federal deficits but requiring program cuts that lawmakers in both parties say are unsustainable politically. As a result, negotiations are possible later in the year to replace the reductions with different savings.

The administration as well as Republicans was selective in arguing for flexibility in this year’s cuts.

“My hope is that gets done,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said earlier in the week of the effort to prevent layoffs among inspectors that could disrupt the nation’s food supply chain. “If it does not, come mid-July we will furlough meat inspectors,” he added, departing from the administration’s position that flexibility should ease all cuts or none at all.

However, the White House did not resist a bipartisan plan to prevent any cut in tuition assistance programs for members of military.

Sens. Dan Coats, R-Ind., and Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., voted for the spending bill.

“It is essential that the government avoid shutdown and allow us to focus on creating jobs and getting our fiscal house in order,” Donnelly said in a statement.

Coats was among 20 Republicans who joined 51 Democrats and two independents in supporting the measure. Twenty-five Republicans and one Democrat – Montana Sen. Jon Tester – voted against final passage.

“By averting a government shutdown, the Senate now can move on to debate a budget plan for our country and try to set spending priorities,” Coats said in a statement about proposals for fiscal 2014.

“It has been four years since the Senate Democrats have offered and passed a budget, and if Washington is serious about repairing the nation’s fiscal books, then we need to get to work on a budget that will grow the economy.”

In the House, minority Democrats advanced a plan calling for $1 trillion in higher taxes, $500 billion in spending cuts over a decade and a $200 billion economic stimulus package. Republicans voted it down 253-165.

They are expected to approve their own different blueprint today. It calls for $4.6 trillion in spending cuts over a decade and no tax increases, a combination that projects a balanced budget in 10 years’ time.

Rep. Mark Mulvaney, R-S.C., said he wanted the House to vote on Obama’s own budget – but then noted the president hadn’t yet released one.

“It’s with great regret ... that I’m not able to offer” a presidential budget for a vote, he said. He added he had wanted to vote on a placeholder – “34 pages full of question marks” – but House rules prevented it.

Brian Francisco of The Journal Gazette contributed to this report.

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