WASHINGTON — The resolution of a pork-fueled flap saved President Barack Obama from having to personally prod a handful of Republicans into crossing party lines and save a measure to keep the federal government running.
The Senate was sent careening Tuesday evening toward a Thursday vote on whether to end debate on its version of a continuing resolution (CR) that includes a full 2013 Pentagon spending bill.
The dispute began when GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma objected to a list of items inserted by the House into its version of the bill that called for millions of federal funds for items such as salmon restoration and weapons the Defense Department no longer wants.
But for several hours Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning, it appeared Obama would have to become the lobbyist in chief on Thursday morning because his Capitol Hill lobbying blitz includes a closed-door session with Senate Republicans that morning.
Based on several recent cloture votes, Obama could have met with the Senate GOP caucus just minutes or hours before the chamber would have held a vote on ending debate on the CR. And the president likely would have pressed a handful of Republicans to vote with Democrats to halt debate and move to an up-or-down vote.
A failure to end debate could have derailed or significantly delayed the CR effort, and maybe even led to a government shutdown had no bill been sent to Obama by March 27. It also could have ended the bid to hand the Pentagon a full 2013 spending bill and sequestration flexibility.
Obama will visit lawmakers four times this week trying to garner support for his second-term agenda, including a “grand bargain” fiscal deal that might void deep cuts to projected Pentagon spending.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., late on Tuesday afternoon announced he was filing a cloture motion on his chamber’s version of a stopgap spending measure to keep the Pentagon and other agencies open through Sept. 31.
McCain and Coburn wanted more time to pore through the House’s bill and a separate Senate CR to identify other potentially questionable items.
The cloture motion would have required 60 votes to pass. Because Democrats hold 55 seats, five Republicans would have to cross party lines and vote with Democrats to shut off debate and move to an up-or-down vote on the CR.
But when Coburn and McCain completed their review of the legislation, they decided to end their hold on the bill and deal with the objectionable items via amendments on the floor.
Democratic senators told reporters Tuesday that Obama, in a private meeting with them, said he supports the Senate version of the CR, crafted primarily by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.
Shortly after Obama wrapped an hour-plus session with the upper chamber’s Democrats Tuesday, the White House issued a statement signaling the president’s support for the Senate bill.
With Obama personally invested in the Senate Democratic bill’s fate following the Tuesday statements, he likely would have had to use the Thursday session to goad a handful of Republicans to cross the aisle.
The current CR expires March 27, meaning the government would shut down that day without passage of some kind of stopgap funding measure.