Republicans and Democrats were able to come together last week to support a two-week measure to keep the government funded until March 18, but they remain far apart on a permanent solution to the budget standoff. About $50 billion dollars apart, to be exact. As Republicans continue to push a House-passed bill which would slash government spending by $61 billion from 2010 levels, Democrats are now proposing a bill which would ultimately reduce yearly spending by $10.5 billion. Senate leadership plans to hold votes on both bills later this week, but the symbolic votes are likely to fail. In the meantime, negotiations between Congressional Republicans and the White House grind on.
On Tuesday, as the Senate geared up for mostly the votes on the two parties' spending plans, the rhetoric heated up. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid claimed that Republicans were opposing their own bill, by trying to prevent it from coming up for a vote. "They're wasting hour after hour," Reid said during a press conference, while promising that he would force Republicans to vote on the measure, which he deemed "extreme." A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell countered that Reid's complaints were just an attempt to distract reporters from statements by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who had blasted President Obama for failing to lead on the issue.
Last week, Congress passed and President Obama signed a two-week measure, which extended federal funding but also made $4 billion in cuts. The cuts include funding reductions in literacy initiatives, health funding for the poor and uninsured, economic development grants for housing, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Many of the cuts had already been recommended by the Obama administration, and others were projects legislators requested that had been authorized for 2010, but would presumably have been axed anyway now that both parties have agreed to ban earmarks.
But many of the cuts still irked some lawmakers. Some Democrats in the House noted that, under Obama's original proposal, two literacy programs costing $316 million were to have been consolidated into a larger education initiative, not cut outright. Other cost savings were supposed to be redirected toward other education efforts. "This is not a good place to start," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who voted against the bill.
But ultimately, the measure easily passed both chambers with bipartisan support. Last week, the administration announced that Vice President Joe Biden, Chief of Staff William Daley, and Budget Director Jacob Lew would head up negotiations on a full-year measure for the White House. Republicans met with Biden and other Democrats on Thursday for a preliminary meeting. Biden took off for a trip to Europe and Russia this week, but Congressional meetings on the budget will continue.
It's not clear how much room the two parties have to maneuver. Some House GOP freshmen have said they won't vote for anything less than a $61 billion cut, while Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the Democratic Senate Whip, told Fox News Sunday that he felt the Democrats' proposal already went "to the limit." Durbin added: "To go any further is to push more kids out of school, to stifle the innovation which small businesses and large alike need to create more jobs." The success of the two-week measure, which cut spending at the same rate as the Republicans' $61 billion bill, has led to speculation on Capitol Hill that Republicans might try to achieve their cuts two weeks at a time with smaller measures. Democrats blasted the idea, claiming the uncertainty would hurt the economy. It's not clear that all Republicans would go along with that strategy, either. One House Republican aide noted that weekly budget battles could take the focus off of other matters, such as the fight over whether to raise the federal debt ceiling. "At that point, you've got so many balls in the air, one of them will get dropped," the aide said.
There are other bipartisan cuts to be made—a recent government report identified billions in duplicative federal spending—but those probably won't be enough to get the parties on the same page. In order to fund the government for the next seven months, both parties will likely have to make painful concessions. It will be clear within two weeks whether or not they'll be able to do it.