Legislation that would avert another nasty partisan budget battle and possibly a shutdown of the government was on a fast track to passage in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives on Wednesday.
The bill to continue funding the government without last-minute drama came as President Barack Obama took the unusual step of inviting Republican Senators to dinner Wednesday night at a Washington hotel a few blocks from the White House.
In another gesture, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that at his suggestion, Obama will join Republicans for a lunch on Capitol Hill on March 14.
The meetings, whether or not they produce results, depart from what has been at best a stand-offish relationship between Obama and Congress.
They suggest that Obama and Republicans are getting the message that public patience with Washington is wearing thin, particularly as Americans read of possible inconveniences they may soon confront at airports and elsewhere as a result of across-the-board cuts to the federal budget that kicked in Friday because lawmakers and the White House could not agree on an alternative.
While Republicans have taken most of the beating in surveys in connection with the so-called “sequestration,” a Reuters/Ipsos online poll released on Wednesday showed 43 percent of people approve of Obama’s handling of his job, down 7 percentage points from February 19.
Confounding the White House’s efforts to blame Republicans for the cuts, most respondents in the online survey hold both Democrats and Republicans responsible.
As recently as February, Republicans were threatening to use the bill to fund the government, called a “continuing resolution,” to extract spending cuts from the White House.
With the current funding bill set to expire on March 27, a fight had been expected toward the end of March.
This time, however, House Republican leadership was pushing to pass a measure now to keep federal government agencies and programs funded through September 30.
It would keep in place the $85 billion automatic spending cuts triggered Friday but provide some additional spending flexibility to the military and other security operations.
Republican Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma said his party wants to shift the cuts to other areas of the budget, noting that there are 20,000 military employees in his Oklahoma district.
“We’ll sit down and renegotiate where they should come from,” Cole said in House floor debate. “We think we’ve got some great ideas, but they (the cuts) are going to occur. They’re the first and appropriate step for getting our fiscal house back in order.”
Although they can’t stop the funding measure, many Democrats in the Republican-controlled House are expected to vote against it.
“This bill falls short in a number of areas, but most of all because it does nothing to prevent the loss of 750,000 jobs that will result because of the sequester,” said Representative Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee.
At the heart of the bitter U.S. budget dispute are deep differences over how to rein in growth of the $16.7 trillion federal debt. Obama wants to close the fiscal gap with spending cuts and tax hikes. Republicans do not want to concede again on taxes after doing so in negotiations over the “fiscal cliff” at the New Year.
Despite the scheduled dinners and meetings and the vote on funding the government, few expect those differences to be resolved any time soon.
Obama is also trying to get Republican cooperation for comprehensive immigration reform and legislation to reduce the level of gun violence in the United States.