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Senate passes bill to avert government shutdown. What happens now?

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Evan Vucci/AP

(Read caption) Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, (D- Nev.) talks to the media after a Democratic policy luncheon on March 1, in Washington.

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The Senate on Wednesday voted to send President Obama a temporary budget bill that cuts $4 billion from US spending but keeps the government running, for now.

Whew! That was a close one. This means there won’t be a federal government shutdown, right? Mischief managed. Let’s move to the next issue.

Hold on there, buckaroo. The vote does not solve the underlying differences between Republicans and Democrats over 2011 spending cuts. All it does is kick the day of reckoning down the road. Specifically, to March 18, which is the date when the two-week budget legislation turns back into a pumpkin by expiring.

What happens now is that Washington faces a tight 14-day period into which lawmakers will try to compress an entire year's worth of budget debate. Will Republicans be able to cut the budget to their satisfaction? Will Democrats be able to protect the programs they feel are necessary to economic recovery and national welfare? Will Jack Bauer save America from a conspiracy so deadly it frightens even itself? The clock is ticking.

Seriously, the just-passed spending bill may have at least two important implications:

First, the GOP is making some headway in forcing cuts. Senate Democrats originally had wanted a clean temporary spending bill that kept the government open at current spending levels while negotiations continued. What they ended up accepting was a bill that contained $4 billion in cuts found by getting rid of earmarks (lawmaker pet projects) and by dropping programs that the Obama administration had proposed be ended.

Republicans now will be able to exert pressure on the Senate and the White House to accept the further $61 billion in reductions for fiscal year 2011 contained in a budget bill that the House passed earlier in the month.

“What I’d like to see is us adopt the House position,” said Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky on Tuesday. “There seems to be some reluctance to do that on the part of the administration and Senate Democrats, so we’ll keep talking about how to go forward.”

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Second, the White House may now be more fully involved in the budget negotiations. Mr. Obama has stayed above the budget-cut fray, for the most part, but Senate Democrats are eager for him to use the bully pulpit of his office to press their position.

Obama is “going to become more engaged, as he’s indicated he will, and I know he will,” said Senate majority leader Harry Reid on Tuesday.

In recent days, Obama did call House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio to ask that the temporary spending bill be a month long, instead of two weeks, with correspondingly more reductions. Speaker Boehner rejected that approach, but only on procedural grounds, saying that the proposal came too late in the game.

So the two sides may have some common ground to at least work out a few more weeks of government spending. Perhaps.

But right now, it appears unlikely that two weeks will be enough time to work out a spending plan to ensure that the government stays open through the end of the fiscal year in September. Republican leaders are under intense pressure from freshmen elected with tea party support to press for deep budget reductions. Democrats respond that those reductions will snuff out jobs at a time when the United States badly needs them.

The $61 billion in cuts approved by the House are taken only from discretionary spending, which is a small portion of the overall budget, noted Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, the majority whip, on the Senate floor Wednesday.

“The House took 14 percent of the federal budget and makes all of its cuts in it,” said Senator Durbin, adding that the reductions would force the Argonne National Lab in his state to lay off one-third of its scientists and staff.

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