Next up for Senate: votes on two budget plans, more than $50 billion apart

The budget plans will give both Democrats and Republicans a sense of where the votes are and a road map for going forward.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Vice President Joe Biden arrives to meet with House and Senate leaders to discuss the federal budget, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday. Congress is considering two budgets - one from Republicans and one from Democrats, but budget-watchers say that a long-term agreement on spending is unlikely. Analysts point out that Republicans don't feel they need to compromise, and Democrats say they have already compromised enough.

The Senate is gearing up for head-to-head votes on two budget plans – more than $50 billion apart – to fund the last seven months of the fiscal year. Without agreement, funding runs out on March 18.

One of the plans is the measure passed by House Republicans, which cuts nearly $62 billion from fiscal 2010 levels. It’s also $100 billion less than President Obama’s fiscal 2011 budget proposal. The GOP measure makes cuts in virtually all elements of nondefense, discretionary spending.

The other measure up for a vote was unveiled Friday by Senate Democrats. Their “counterplan” contains a targeted $6.5 billion in cuts, along lines proposed by the White House.

Neither bill is expected to win the 60 votes needed to pass major legislation in the Senate. But it gives both sides a sense of where the votes are and a road map for going forward.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada had opposed bringing the House bill to the floor, dubbing it reckless and a waste of time. He later relented, but in proposing votes on the competing plans next week, he again raised concerns that severe cuts could derail a fragile recovery.

“We can’t afford to be blinded by the big numbers in the House Republicans’ plan,” he said in remarks on the Senate floor on Friday. “We have to scrutinize how they came to cut $61 billion. And the truth is that it adds up to $61 billion through significant subtraction of programs the American people don’t want to lose.”

He added, “We see our modestly recovering economy, including today’s news that employers are hiring at the fastest pace in almost a year and the national unemployment rate fell to a nearly two-year low. We can’t squander this cautiously optimistic news with counterproductive cuts.”

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky called the $6 billion in cuts proposed by Senate Democrats and the White House “unserious.”

“What the White House is proposing is little more than one more proposal to maintain the status quo – to give the appearance of action where there is none,” he said on the floor Friday. “This latest proposal is unacceptable, and it’s indefensible.”

But it’s a start. There are, in fact, points in common between the two versions. Both plans, for example, would cut funding for a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – a move favored by the Pentagon that is expected to save taxpayers $450 million. Overall, the Senate bill provides $671.5 billion in defense spending – $17.5 billion less than the president requested and $2.13 billion less than the House bill.

Both plans also propose near 5 percent cuts to congressional office operations. The Senate’s version provides $38 billion more in funding for this than the House’s. The Senate Appropriations Committee estimates that the Senate’s level of cuts will allow the legislative branch to continue to operate without major disruptions, but that furloughs are likely for some offices.

“The numbers will be comparable, but the cuts will be different,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee’s legislative branch panel. “We are looking for ways to do it that will not shock the economy or have unintended consequences.”

Another example of where cuts in the plans could produce different impacts: operations of the Library of Congress. The Senate bill proposes $434.8 million for the LOC, a cut of $42.4 million from what the White House requested for FY 2011. The Senate Appropriations panel estimates that that level of cuts would require a hiring freeze and delays in core services. But the $72.2 million that the House proposes cutting would require shutting down the Library of Congress for two of the next seven months, the panel estimates.

Votes on the competing measures are expected as early as Tuesday, which would then give lawmakers 10 days to come up with a deal for seven months or another short-term measure like the one passed this week. Budget-watchers say that a long-term agreement on spending is unlikely.

“I don’t see the elements in place,” says Stan Collender, a leading budget analyst and partner in the D.C. office of Qorvis Communications. “I don’t think the Republicans feel they have to compromise. They have to score political points with their base. The only way you get a grand deal is if there is a general agreement that the deficit needs to be reduced. You don’t have that kind of agreement now.”

A high-profile meeting Thursday between congressional leaders and Vice President Joe Biden to avoid a government shutdown ended with a brief statement. “We had a good meeting, and the conversation will continue,” said Mr. Biden, who is leading negotiations for the White House. The vice president played a similar role last year in reaching consensus on extending the Bush-era tax cuts.

While the sides in the budget negotiations are tens of billions of dollars apart, Republicans claim credit for changing the narrative on Capitol Hill from government spending to budget cutting.

“[The Senate will] have the votes, and then keep talking,” said Don Stewart, deputy chief of staff for Republican leader McConnell. “But the fact that Democrats are talking about cutting spending makes your heart stop. You know the world has changed.”

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