The Democratic-led Senate on Wednesday emphatically rejected a budget-slashing House spending bill as too draconian. It then immediately killed a rival Democratic plan that was derided by moderate Democrats as too timid in its drive to cut day-to-day agency budgets.
The votes to scuttle the competing measures were designed, ironically, to prompt progress. The idea was to show tea-party-backed GOP conservatives in the House that they need to pare back their budget-cutting ambitions while at the same time demonstrating to Democratic liberals that they need to budge, too.
White House budget director Jacob Lew said the votes should turn a page and that talks between the administration and Republicans likely are to become more productive. The negotiators are unlikely to meet a March 18 deadline, which means another stopgap budget extension would be required to keep the government from shutting down.
Top Senate Democrats visited with President Barack Obama on Wednesday afternoon to plot strategy. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a participant, declined to comment afterward other than to say he recognizes his party will have to move in the GOP’s direction.
One reason is that Democratic moderates are agitating for further cuts to spending.
The GOP plan mustered 44 aye votes; the Democratic measure received just 42 votes, with 10 party members and liberal independent Bernard Sanders in opposition. Moderates Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Ben Nelson, D-Neb., Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and McCaskill — each face potentially difficult re-election bids next year — were among those opposed to the Democratic version.
At issue was legislation to fund the day-to-day operating budgets of every federal agency through the Sept. 30 end of the budget year and provide a $158 billion infusion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Republicans dominating the House, driven by a campaign promise to bring return domestic agency budgets to 2008, drove through last month a measure cutting more than $60 billion, imposing cuts of 13 percent, on average, to domestic agencies.
The 87-person freshman class forced Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to back away from an earlier plan cutting $35 billion over the second half of the budget year that took into account the fact that the budget year is nearly half over. As a result, over the coming six months, the House measure would actually impose day-to-day cuts far steeper than promised in the campaign. Targets grew to include Head Start, special education and Pell Grants for low-income college students.
Senate Democrats had been slow to respond. Their alternative, unveiled just last Friday by Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, cuts about $12 billion below levels enacted for 2010. It’s also $30 billion below a Senate omnibus spending measure that Republicans sidetracked in December.