By Edward Donga
BU Washington News Service
WASHINGTON—Congress gave final approval on Thursday to legislation that will keep the federal government running for the final six months of the 2013 fiscal year—although members of the New Hampshire and Maine delegations found themselves split along intraparty and partisan lines over the measure.
All federal departments and agencies were due to run out of funding next Wednesday. Passage of the bill, known in legislative parlance as a continuing resolution, averts the possibility of a government shutdown and prompted the Defense Department to delay civilian furloughs for approximately two weeks, giving officials time to analyze the impact of the new legislation on the Pentagon’s resources.
That delay was welcomed by several legislators eyeing the prospect of furloughs at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, which employs 5,000 workers in southern Maine along the Maine/New Hampshire border.
“We believe the delay is a responsible step to take in order to assure our civilian employees that we do not take lightly the prospect of furloughs and the resulting decrease in employee pay,” said Pentagon spokesman George Little.
The continuing resolution approved by the House and Senate does not repeal the so-called sequester—the $85 billion in automatic budget cuts, split evenly between defense and non-defense programs—that took effect March 1 for the current 2013 fiscal year. The question of replacing the sequester, which will cut $1.2 trillion in federal spending over a 10-year period, with other cuts or revenue increases will be the subject of broader budget negotiations this summer.
The continuing resolution does reallocate the impact of the budget savings required by the sequester, resulting in additional funding for some defense and non-defense programs.
Due to this provision, Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Angus King, I-Maine, saw an opportunity for the Pentagon to find an alternative to the previously announced furloughs. “We hope the Department of Defense will find the appropriate resources within the continuing resolution, which we supported, so that the men and women who work at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and [Defense Finance and Accounting Services] can continue their important work and have financial security,” Collins and King said in a joint statement. DFAS has a facility in Limestone in northern Maine.
“I’m encouraged by this news and am hopeful that the Pentagon now has the flexibility in its budget to blunt at least some of impact the automatic budget cuts will have on civilian employees,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said in a separate statement.
In the Senate, Collins was one of 20 Republicans who supported the continuing resolution when it passed that chamber late Wednesday by a 73-26 margin; King joined 52 Democrats, including Shaheen, who voted for it.
However, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., joined 24 other Republicans and one Democrat in voting against final passage of the legislation.
During the debate, Senate leaders declined to bring up an amendment offered by Ayotte that would have eliminated $381 million in funding for the Medium Extended Air Defense System. Ayotte has derided the system as the “missile to nowhere,” because the Pentagon has said it does not intend to move ahead with the struggling program.
Her amendment, which had bipartisan support, would have transferred funding for the missile program to the Pentagon’s operations and maintenance budget, which funds the defense facilities including the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
“The $1 trillion, catch-all government funding bill didn’t have a fair and open amendment process to provide an opportunity to eliminate billions in unauthorized and wasteful spending, which could have been used for priorities currently being hurt by sequestration,” said Ayotte.
Collins said she would prefer a return to “regular order” in which Congress considers separately each of a dozen annual appropriations bills that fund the government. But, referring to the continuing resolution, she added, “I supported this bill because it allows us to avoid yet another fiscal crisis at the end of this month.”
Collins also noted that the legislation contained Defense Department funding that she said was crucial for the Navy to reach its goal of building 10 DDG-51 destroyers in the next five years, in addition to a $150 million increase for repairs to the USS Miami.
In the House, where the continuing resolution passed by 318-109 Thursday sending it to President Obama, Reps. Carol Shea-Porter and Anne McLane Kuster, both D-N.H., voted for the legislation, while Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, voted against it.
“Congresswoman Pingree believes that the arbitrary, across the board budget cuts of the sequester should be repealed and she voted against the bill today because it keeps those arbitrary cuts in place for the rest of the year,” said Pingree spokesman Willy Ritch.
While Shea-Porter and Kuster both criticized the bill in separate statements for keeping the sequester cuts in place, they said they had voted for the legislation to avoid a government shutdown.
“I wanted a bill that canceled sequestration and took a balanced approach to deficit reduction, but the last thing our country needs right now is for Washington to inflict greater pain on our economy and our workers by shutting down the federal government,” said Shea-Porter.