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US government shutdown averted but December clash looms
[WASHINGTON] Congress steered the US government clear of a shutdown Wednesday hours before a midnight deadline, approving temporary federal spending that does not defund women's health care provider Planned Parenthood as Republicans had hoped.
The Senate and House, both controlled by Republicans, acted pragmatically to fund the government at current levels beyond Thursday's start of the new fiscal year. The legislation heads to President Barack Obama who was expected to sign it before midnight.
The stopgap measure only runs until December 11, setting up a new potential fiscal clash just 10 weeks from now.
But it avoids a repeat of 2013, when bickering lawmakers failed to reach a deal on spending and the government skidded into a damaging 16-day shutdown.
Mr Obama, speaking to Democratic state lawmakers at the White House, hailed the congressional action.
"It looks like the Republicans will just barely avoid shutting down the government for the second time in two years," he said.
House Republican Charlie Dent noted it would be "utterly reckless" to trigger a spending crisis over Planned Parenthood.
"Whether you like them or not isn't the point. We should never shut the government down over that or frankly any other issue at this time." The spending includes funding for the women's healthcare and abortion provider long targeted by Republicans, and which is at the centre of a swirling controversy.
Debate exploded earlier this year, when abortion foes released secretly recorded videos that they said show Planned Parenthood officials discussing the for-profit sale of fetal tissue obtained during abortion procedures, which would be a violation of federal law.
Planned Parenthood insists the videos were deceitfully edited, and that its staff was merely discussing the process for obtaining the tissue and the legal payments by research facilities to cover expenses including transportation.
Appalled arch-conservatives called for a ban on all federal funding for the organisation, and had sought to use negotiations over spending as leverage to achieve their goal.
Efforts to pass a spending measure that blocked money to Planned Parenthood failed last week.
Wednesday's clean bill passed 78 votes to 20 in the Senate with more than half the chamber's Republicans voting in favour. No Democrats voted against it.
Senator Ted Cruz, a 2016 presidential candidate who has led the fight to defund Planned Parenthood at virtually all costs, slammed his party's capitulation.
"Republican leadership chose to abandon its constitutional power of the purse and to fund 100 per cent of President Obama's failed agenda," Mr Cruz said.
"This was a mistake, and it's why people are so frustrated with Washington." The measure later cleared the House with broad bipartisan support, 277 to 151.
While their defund strategy failed, hard-core conservatives achieved what many in their camp consider a crucial victory: the announced resignation of House Speaker John Boehner, who has been dogged for years by a far-right flank that demands more aggressively conservative action.
With the threat of shutdown defused, Republican leaders in Congress are turning toward talks with Mr Obama over a long-term budget agreement for the remainder of fiscal year 2016, and potentially beyond.
"The president and Speaker Boehner and I spoke about getting started in the discussions last week, and I would expect them to start very soon," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters on Tuesday.
Mr Boehner's departure is set for October 30, and the big question is how hard he will push for Republican priorities, which include boosting defence spending, before he exits Congress.
The US government remains constrained by spending curbs that have essentially frozen budget levels since 2011.
Republicans are seeking an increase in military funding, while Mr Obama will press for similar hikes for domestic programmes.
Nita Lowey, the House Appropriations Committee's top Democrat, remained "deeply concerned about the potential of finding ourselves facing a government shutdown again in December," she said.
"The uncertainty and unnecessary tumult of playing games right up to the brink of a government shutdown is not helpful to our fragile economy."
The House also adopted a separate resolution that defunds Planned Parenthood, but the Senate is not expected to attach it to the spending bill.