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Congress back to the drawing board on budget cuts

The Senate rejects two spending proposals as the March 18 deadline for averting a government shutdown approaches. Another stopgap measure is expected in the coming days.

March 10, 2011|By Lisa Mascaro, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — The Senate rejected two different proposals Wednesday to rein in government spending as Democrats stepped up a campaign to close tax loopholes to counter a Republican drive to reduce deficits through deep domestic spending cuts alone.

Both sides have temporarily retreated to reassess their stances after Wednesday's votes — which fell far short of reaching the 60 needed for approval. The failure of the two bills made it clear that neither the Republican proposal for $60 billion in cuts nor a more modest Democratic plan will win broad support in Congress.

Lawmakers face a March 18 deadline for averting a government shutdown, although a stopgap measure is expected to be introduced within days.

Before the Senate votes, President Obama met with Senate Democrats at the White House. Democrats want to pressure the GOP into considering the revenue side of the deficit equation. Vice President Joe Biden also spoke with Republican leaders by phone from overseas as talks continued.

"If we are serious, we need to scour all parts of the budget that contribute to the deficit," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) in a speech at the Center for American Progress, a think tank with close ties to the Obama administration.

The Democratic proposal to trim $6.5 billion garnered only 42 votes, with 58 lawmakers rejecting it as a paltry amount in the face of public pressure to reduce deficits. Ten Democrats — many up for reelection or who represent swing states, and one independent who caucuses with Democrats — joined all Senate Republicans in voting against that measure. Their "no" vote signals that some in the party want more cuts on the table.

"It's got to be more substantial," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who seeks a proposal that makes cuts "in a responsible way, to show the American people we get it."

In addition to domestic program reductions, Democrats said changes in defense, Medicare, Medicaid, and rollbacks of tax breaks for oil, gas and agricultural companies should be considered.

Polls have shown American voters support many of those ideas. Although voters want cuts, the GOP-backed reductions to preschool and other education programs are not popular.

Republicans in the House have refused to budge from their initial offer, a bill that would reduce spending by $60 billion through the rest of the 2011 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. But in the Senate, the bill was rejected 44 to 56, with three Republicans joining all Democrats in voting against the measure.

The dissenting Republicans, Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah and Jim DeMint of South Carolina, represent the GOP's most conservative flank, and they said their party's plan did not cut enough. Other Republicans said they voted for the GOP proposal despite their concerns over cuts to home-state programs.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) must now gauge whether his activist freshman class will relent from its opening offer and consider a compromise.

After Wednesday's Senate votes, both sides looked to the other to make the next move to avoid a disruption in government services.

"Republicans have no excuses left," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). "It's time for them to work with us."

But Boehner said, "It's time for Washington Democrats to present a serious plan."

House Republicans intend to present another stopgap measure by the end of the week that would fund the government for two to four weeks. That bill, like the previous extension agreed to by Democrats, is expected to make cuts at the rate of $4 billion for each two-week period.

lmascaro@tribune.com

Staff writer Kathleen Hennessey in Washington contributed to this report.

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