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House passes bill to keep government running

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives took the first step Wednesday toward keeping the federal government open after March 27, passing a bill to extend spending levels through Sept. 30 and preserving the automatic spending cuts that went into effect Friday.

The House bill would make one change in the recent automatic spending cuts, called a sequester: It would give the military and veterans programs officials more flexibility to shift the cuts around their departments to minimize impacts. The House adopted the plan to extend government financing by a vote of 267-151.

While the Democratic Senate is likely to propose changes, the tone of the debate in the House and support from 53 Democrats for the GOP proposal suggested an eagerness to avoid a partial government shutdown when current funding runs out for a share of the government. At the same time, President Barack Obama planned a dinner Wednesday night with a group of Republican senators at a downtown hotel and visits to the Capitol next week. When he meets with Senate Republicans on Thursday, March 14, it will be the first time he's visited the caucus at the Capitol in nearly three years. The president's already begun calling senators, talking about the budget, immigration and other matters.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he was "cautiously optimistic" about the prospects for an agreement to keep the government open past March 27. The Senate is expected to consider a plan next week.

The measure involves discretionary spending in the $3.55 trillion federal budget, the portion that Congress and Obama can more easily control. Not included are programs subject to automatic increases, such as Social Security and certain health care benefits.

The Democrats' chief complaint with the House bill was its acceptance of the sequester for domestic programs. But the White House was gentle in its criticism, avoiding a veto threat and saying it was "pleased" that the bill maintained spending levels.

It did say, though, that the bill "raises concerns about the government's ability to protect consumers, avoid deep cuts in critical services that families depend on, and implement critical domestic priorities such as access to quality and affordable health care."

The statement reflected the tranquil mood toward the funding measure, a possible sign that Washington is aware the public and the financial markets have had enough bickering.

"We were badly damaged by this fighting," said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. "When we go home people are saying, 'You guys need to sit down and work things out.' Both sides are hearing that."