The House passed legislation Friday to head off a government shutdown next week by temporarily extending spending on most federal programs at current levels, while boosting lawmakers' office budgets by more than 8 percent.
The House passed the measure by a 217-190 vote. It would keep the government running for another month and it also patches over problems in the financially struggling Postal Service and funds soon-to-expire highway programs for another month as well.
But in an unusual step, those measures were tacked onto a $4.7 billion House-Senate compromise bill that will fund Congress' own budget. That measure was chosen because it can't be amended before being presented to President Barack Obama, which saves time — and spares Democrats politically difficult votes on both the House and Senate floors.
The one-month stopgap spending measure is needed because Congress has failed to complete work on any of the 12 annual spending bills for agency budgets that it passes each year.
It's not unusual for Congress to tack such stopgap bills onto other spending bills to speed them along. But by choosing the legislative branch funding bill to be the first measure presented to the president, majority Democrats opened themselves to GOP criticism that they were putting their own budget ahead of agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security.
"Instead of actually doing our work and fulfilling the security needs of our nation, we're placing a 'priority' on Congress' own budget, putting the homeland security spending bill on ice," said Kentucky Rep. Harold Rogers, top Republican on the homeland security funding panel.
Democratic Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey of Wisconsin said Republicans had used similar approaches in the past to advance stopgap bills.
Obey added that other spending bills had been hung up over a House-Senate dispute on whether to subject lawmakers' so-called earmarks to for-profit companies to a competitive bidding process. Earmarks by House members would be subject to competitive bids under a compromise reached Thursday evening, Obey said.
The underlying House-Senate compromise on the congressional operations budget was non-controversial. All told, Congress is rewarding itself with a 6 percent budget boost, though the $51 million increase for the House office budget account represents an 8 percent increase.
The Senate rewarded itself with a 6 percent boost for its office accounts.
The financially struggling Postal Service would be allowed to delay $4 billion in payments due next month to a health care fund for retirees. Some $5.4 billion is supposed to be paid into the Retiree Health Benefits Fund, but Postal officials say they don't have enough money to make the payment.
The measure would also extend the federal highway program for one month. Congress is working on a three-month extension.
Given the controversy swirling about ACORN, officially the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, Democrats inserted language saying the group could not receive funding under the stopgap measure or any prior legislation.
The stopgap funding measure would extend funding for the operating budgets of Cabinet departments and other agencies at current levels through Oct. 31. Exceptions would be made for the Census Bureau, which gets a big infusion to prepare for next year's count, and politically sacrosanct veterans medical programs, both of which would operate at increases.
Several other spending bills, including measures funding the departments of Agriculture, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs are in House-Senate talks.