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Senators stand down on spending amendments

A bill needed to avert a full government shutdown had become bogged down in attempts to rearrange budget cuts. Lawmakers finally agree to consider an unencumbered bill.

March 18, 2013|By Lisa Mascaro, Washington Bureau
  • Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) chided senators last week for what he called an "if he gets his, I get mine" approach to amending a spending bill. The chamber agreed Monday to consider the bill with few amendments.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) chided senators last week for… (Cliff Owen, Associated…)

WASHINGTON — It was bound to happen: As the "sequester" budget cuts are felt around the country, lawmakers are having second thoughts — and are trying to tinker with them.

On a routine spending bill, senators filed more than 125 amendments that would have reopened the White House to tours, shielded meat inspectors from furloughs and kept air traffic control towers staffed, among other moves.

The attempts to rearrange the across-the-board cuts filed by senators on both sides of the political aisle had stalled the measure, which is needed to keep the government running after March 27. Without approval of the stopgap spending bill, the government would shut down, a prospect lawmakers and President Obama have said they want to avoid. Any changes would need approval in the House, and Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has warned against wholesale adjustments.

An exasperated Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid scolded the senators last week for their "if he gets his, I want mine" attitude and warned them not to provoke "the ire of the speaker."

But late Monday, the Nevada Democrat's plea appeared to have worked, as senators agreed to consider the bill with few amendments.

"I'm asking senators here to give up a few things for the greater good," Reid said.

Not all the proposed changes would have reinstated cuts made when the $85 billion in reductions began March 1 after Congress failed to reach a deal to avert them.

Some dealt with thorny domestic and foreign policy issues. One amendment, which was defeated, would have delayed money needed for the new healthcare law.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a top deficit hawk, filed half a dozen amendments, including measures to freeze federal hiring and restrict the ability of federal employees to travel to conferences.

Other amendments, though, went to the heart of the sequester cuts and sought to reshuffle the reductions in a way that their sponsors found more politically acceptable.

Ten senators from both parties wanted to shift $50 million to keep air traffic control towers open, taking the money from the Federal Aviation Administration's research and capital accounts.

"The president is playing politics with public safety by closing contract air traffic control towers across the nation — six in my state of Oklahoma," said Republican Sen. James M. Inhofe in a statement.

Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) led another bipartisan group that proposed restoring money for a tuition assistance program for military service members.

"Denying educational opportunities to our service members is the wrong way to find savings," Hagan wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

An amendment from Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) proposed transferring $55 million within the Agriculture Department to keep meat inspectors on the job. Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) wanted to shift money from a Pentagon biofuels account to shore up defense operations and maintenance, as an Army depot in his state announced layoffs.

Perhaps the most crowd-pleasing amendment was from Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) to reopen the White House to public tours. The cancellations have brought scorn from Republicans — and others.

Moran said the cuts should be made "in ways that do not intentionally and unnecessarily inflict hardship and aggravation upon the American people." He proposed shifting $2.5 million from the Transportation Security Administration to the Secret Service to cover the $2.14 million needed to keep the White House doors open.

Few — if any — of the amendments will come to a vote. To do so would take more time than Senate leaders from both sides appeared willing to allow, and Monday's vote limits the scope of those that can be considered.

Boehner is keeping an eye on the action. Any changes would have to be approved by his restive Republican majority. "Our goal here is to cut spending," he said. "It's not to shut down the government."

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