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Senate faces ticking clock in budget standoff

With 10 days until short-term funding for the government runs out, senators will vote on competing spending plans – both expected to fail.

March 07, 2011|By Lisa Mascaro, Washington Bureau
  • "Time is not on our side," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), as a deadline swiftly approached to pass a government spending plan.
"Time is not on our side," said Senate Majority Leader Harry… (Louie Traub, Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — — Facing another fast-approaching deadline to avert a government shutdown, the Senate is set to vote as early as Tuesday on competing budget proposals — both expected to fail — as public and private talks to resolve the stalemate grind on.

Each week deepens the complexity surrounding the standoff and complicates the negotiations as Congress approaches other debates over the nation's debt capacity, entitlement spending and tax policy.

With 10 days until short-term funding for the government runs out, the Senate is expected to begin a series of test votes to convince rank-and-file lawmakers — particularly the "tea party" freshmen in the House — that compromise is required.

"Time is not on our side," Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader, said Monday.

The spending plan is needed to fund the government for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. But it is becoming increasingly intertwined with far-reaching debates over the size and scope of government.

A bipartisan group of six senators is expected to meet behind closed doors again Tuesday to discuss a broad proposal to reduce federal deficits by $4 trillion over 10 years — the goal set by President Obama's fiscal commission in its sweeping deficit reduction report last year.

Commission leaders planned to begin a national campaign Tuesday to convince the public of the need for tax and spending reforms to prevent a debt crisis.

"Both sides understand the magnitude of the problem and, deep down, know what must be done," the commission's two leaders, former Clinton administration official Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), wrote recently.

Both Democrats and Republicans have found things to like — and dislike — in the commission's ideas. It recommends sweeping cuts in federal spending, closing tax loopholes, ending popular deductions and raising revenue — leaving virtually no constituency untouched.

Other budget debates loom. House Republican leaders have promised to tackle changes to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security entitlements in their 2012 budget blueprint next month.

At the same time, the administration may ask Congress as soon as mid-April to raise the legal debt ceiling, a vote many Republicans vow to oppose if it doesn't come with further initiatives to reduce spending.

Democrats argue that spending cuts alone are insufficient, and advocate tax policy changes to raise revenue. The fiscal commission calls for closing corporate tax loopholes.

The pressure to resolve spending for 2011 intensified after the White House called for private talks. Vice President Joe Biden, who participated in the first round last week, is traveling in Finland, Russia and Moldova this week but remains available for talks, the White House said.

The Democratic-controlled Senate will begin voting this week on a GOP plan to cut $60 billion in spending on domestic programs in the current fiscal year. Republican targets include healthcare, education and research, all areas the White House seeks to protect.

The GOP proposal is expected to fail. A White House plan to cut a much smaller amount, about $6.5 billion, is also expected to fail; Republicans consider it inadequate.

Obama has expressed willingness to cut further. Factoring in the $4 billion in cuts contained in the short-term spending measure, the White House and lawmakers remain about $50 billion apart.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader, said it was "ludicrous" to assert that Democrats had gone as far as they could.

Leaders expect this week's votes to exert pressure on both sides. Democratic senators who will run for reelection in 2012 may be willing to cut deeply as they face voters who helped expand the GOP ranks last fall.

Similarly, though, moderate Republican senators running for another term may be wrestling with the steep reductions in the House plan, which would be the most severe one-time cuts in a generation.

And the 2012 electorate is likely to differ from November's, given that the president will be on the ballot.

Congress will probably approve another short-term spending measure by March 18 to prevent a disruption in government services and avoid a shutdown.

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