WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama on Wednesday signed a stopgap spending bill crafted by his Republican foes amid a political war fueled by fears that swollen US deficits and debt were stifling job growth.
With 14 days before that legislation lapses, Obama also urged Republicans and his Democratic allies to immediately open talks on a longer-term provision to keep the government operating while tightening Washington’s belt.
His appeal came as one of his top Republican foes, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, set the stage for another showdown with the Obama administration by saying Congress was in no hurry to act on raising the US debt ceiling.
And Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke said $61 billion in spending cuts in a Republican bill that cleared the House of Representatives earlier this month could cost “a couple hundred thousand jobs,” but not the 700,000 in a study cited by Democrats who immediately rejected it.
“So it’s not trivial, but I think those numbers are a little high,” Bernanke told the House Financial Services Committee.
The president’s Democratic allies and his Republican foes have been battling over the proper role of government as the US economy shakily rises from the worst US economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Republicans rallied broad Democratic support for their stopgap measure by using spending cuts included in Obama’s proposed budget and savings from a generally agreed upon ban on funding congressional pet projects.
The bill, which included $4 billion in cuts, drew wide bipartisan backing as it sailed 91-9 through the Democratic-led Senate one day after clearing the Republican-held House by a 335-91 margin.
Obama said he was “pleased” to get the measure but warned “we cannot keep doing business this way. Living with the threat of a shutdown every few weeks is not responsible, and it puts our economic progress in jeopardy.”
And he urged top Republicans to start talks with Vice President Joe Biden, White House Chief of Staff William Daley, and budget director Jacob Lew to “find common ground on a budget that makes sure we are living within our means.”
“This agreement should cut spending and reduce deficits without damaging economic growth or gutting investments in education, research and development that will create jobs and secure our future,” said the president.
Republicans, who routed Obama’s Democrats in November elections shaped by deep voter anger at stubbornly high unemployment, threw responsibility for coming to the table back on Senate Democrats.
“Americans have the right to know where Senate Democrats’ plan to cut spending and fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year is. And so we’re waiting for them,” said Republican House Speaker John Boehner.
Congressional approval sent the legislation to Obama to sign before a Friday deadline that could have seen the US government partially shut down, but lawmakers and observers alike predicting more pitched political warfare ahead.
“It’s going to take a superhuman effort by the White House, as well as congressional leaders, to achieve a new spending bill for the remainder of the year in just two weeks,” said the Senate’s number-two Democrat Dick Durbin.
House Republicans earlier this month approved a measure to fund the government through the end of the current fiscal year, September 30, and including some $61 billion in cuts — drawing a White House veto threat.
Senate Democrats, and many Republicans, have complained that the House cut too deeply from what they regard as critical programs, including foreign aid, education, transportation infrastructure, and border control.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid warned against embracing “devastating” Republican cuts but vowed “we’re going to keep working toward a solution” and urged all sides to make concessions.
Lawmakers have until midnight on March 18 to forge a long-term compromise, amid US voter anger at stubbornly high unemployment and worries about the bloated government deficit and swelling national debt.
They also faced a battle over raising the debt ceiling — and Cantor told MSNBC the Congress would wait to act until April 15, the first day, under US Treasury Department reckonings, when the government could hit the limit.
“Cuts first. We’ve got to demonstrate we are tightening our belt,” said Cantor.