Congress still at risk of shutdown

WASHINGTON — While Wednesday's Senate vote assured that the federal government will have enough money to stay open through March 18, lawmakers and analysts expressed little confidence that a longer-term agreement on spending can be reached in time to avoid a shutdown.

Pressure began to mount on both sides to stick to their guns — from interest groups, which are running ads and holding rallies, and from both parties, each eager to tar the other as fiscally irresponsible.

The Senate voted 91-9 Wednesday to fund the government through March 18 and to cut spending by $4 billion in that time. The House of Representatives approved the measure Tuesday, and President Obama signed it into law later Wednesday.

Both Kansas senators, Republicans Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts, voted to pass the bill.

Its passage satisfied no one, since it only postponed the partisan showdown.

After the vote, Obama said, "I'm pleased that Democrats and Republicans in Congress came together and passed a plan that will cut spending and keep the government running for the next two weeks. But we cannot keep doing business this way."

He called for talks to begin immediately among Republican and Democratic lawmakers, Vice President Joe Biden, White House Chief of Staff William Daley and Budget Director Jacob Lew.

The immediate issue is what level of spending can be agreed on to keep the government running through Sept. 30, the end of the 2011 fiscal year, but the talks could expand beyond that.

Sometime this spring, the government will hit its $14.3 trillion debt limit. Unless Congress raises it, Washington then will be unable to borrow. In addition, by Oct. 1, lawmakers will have to adopt a fiscal 2012 budget, at least a temporary one. Each deadline poses risks of a shutdown.

The high-level talks are expected to include ideas for compromising on painful choices over taxes and entitlements, programs such as Social Security and Medicare whose benefits qualified people are legally entitled to receive.

But reaching a bipartisan compromise — particularly in two weeks — will be very difficult, if not impossible.