House votes to avert shutdown as Obama looks for big deal

Rosalind S. Helderman and Philip Rucker / The Washington Post /

WASHINGTON — The House took its first step to avert a government shutdown on Wednesday as President Obama began a series of rare meetings with Republican lawmakers, reviving chances for a long-term deal to reduce the deficit.

Washington looks to forgo forcing a fiscal crisis this month, as the House approved a six-month spending bill that would fund the government through the end of the current fiscal year. The measure passed 267 to 151, with most Republicans supporting it and most Democrats voting against it.

The stopgap measure provides $982 billion, enough to keep federal agencies humming past March 27, when the mechanism currently funding the government expires. But it would lock in the across-the-board spending cuts known as the sequester for the rest of the fiscal year.

The bill now heads to the Senate, where Democrats are likely to seek amendments to help blunt the impacts of the domestic spending cuts that began last week. But there is bipartisan optimism that a final version of the bill will clear Congress by the end of the month.

With a government shutdown now unlikely, Obama is turning his focus to a new round of talks that the White House hopes could break Washington’s fiscal impasse. After more than two years of negotiations with Republican leaders failed to achieve a “grand bargain,” Obama is courting rank-and-file Republicans he believes might be interested in a deal pairing cuts to entitlement programs with a tax overhaul that would include new revenues.

The president invited a group of GOP senators to dinner Wednesday at a neutral, and tony, location: the Jefferson Hotel in downtown Washington. Aides said his focus would be fiscal issues, but that the president also would discuss such priorities as immigration reform and gun control.

Next week, Obama will make a rare trek to Capitol Hill to meet separately with the Democratic and Republican caucuses in both the House and Senate.

There appears to be a growing appetite among leaders at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to strike an accord that has eluded them throughout Obama’s presidency.

A few hours before dining with Obama, Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., told reporters: “My message is, ‘Mr. President, we’ve been dealing with short-term, buy-a-little-time stuff for two years now. Isn’t it time to reach some kind of big deal that puts this behind us and sets a course for the next 10 years, removes this dark cloud of uncertainty that’s hanging over the economy and gives us a clear path forward?’”

Obama’s new charm offensive marks a departure from his more combative recent negotiating style. Since winning re-election last November, he has pursued an outside strategy of rallying the public to ratchet up pressure on lawmakers to back his proposals.

Now, however, with across-the-board spending cuts now taking hold, White House aides said Obama sees an opportunity for productive discussions with Republicans over how to replace the sequester with a more thoughtful and less painful deficit-reduction plan.

Aides say Obama accepts that the sequester cuts are here to stay, for the moment at least. But he wants to replace them quickly with a deal that includes overhauling entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security in exchange for raising $600 billion in new revenue by overhauling the tax code.

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