WASHINGTON – The Senate approved legislation Wednesday to lock in $85 billion in widely decried spending cuts aimed at restraining soaring federal deficits — and to avoid a government shutdown just a week away. President Barack Obama's fellow Democrats rejected a call to reopen White House tours scrapped because of the tightened spending.
Federal meat inspectors were spared furloughs, but more than 100 small and medium air traffic facilities were left exposed to possible closure as the two parties alternately clashed and cooperated over proposals to take the edge off across-the-board spending cuts that took effect on March 1.
Final House approval of the measure is likely as early as Thursday. Obama's signature is a certainty, meaning the cuts will remain in place at least through the end of the budget year on Sept. 30 — even though he and lawmakers in both parties have criticized them as random rather than targeted. Obama argued strongly against them in campaign-style appearances, predicting painful consequences, before they began taking effect, and Republicans objected to impacts on Pentagon spending.
Without changes, the $85 billion in cuts for the current year will swell to nearly $1 trillion over a decade, enough to make at least a small dent in economy-threatening federal deficits but requiring program cuts that lawmakers in both parties say are unsustainable politically. As a result, negotiations are possible later in the year to replace the reductions with different savings.
The administration as well as Republicans picked and chose its spots in arguing for flexibility in this year's cuts.
"My hope is that gets done," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said earlier in the week of the effort to prevent layoffs among inspectors that could disrupt the nation's food supply chain. "If it does not, come mid-July we will furlough meat inspectors," he added, departing from the administration's general position that flexibility should ease all the cuts or none at all.
Nor did the White House resist a bipartisan plan to prevent any cut in tuition assistance programs for members of military.
The final vote was 73-26, with 51 Democrats, 20 Republicans and two independents in favor and 25 Republicans and Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana opposed.
Political considerations were on ample display in both houses as lawmakers labored over measures relating to spending priorities, both for this year and a decade into the future.
Rep. Mark Mulvaney, R-S.C., said he had wanted the House to vote on Obama's own budget, but he noted the president hadn't yet released one. "It's with great regret ... that I'm not able to offer" a presidential budget for a vote, he said. He added he had wanted to vote on a placeholder — "34 pages full of question marks" — but House rules prevented it.
Minority Democrats advanced a plan that calls for $1 trillion in higher taxes, $500 billion in spending cuts over a decade and a $200 billion economic stimulus package. Republicans voted it down, 253-165.
They are expected to approve their own very different blueprint on Thursday.
It calls for $4.6 trillion in spending cuts over a decade and no tax increases, a combination that projects to a balanced budget in 10 years' time. That spending plan would indeed be simply a blueprint, lacking any actual control over federal spending.
The issues were grittier in the Senate, where lawmakers grappled with the immediate impact of across-the-board cuts on individual programs.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a deficit hawk, said he wanted to reopen the White House tours, shut down since earlier in the month. He said his proposal would take about $8 million from the National Heritage Partnership Program and apply it toward "opening up the tours at the White House, opening up Yellowstone National Park and the rest of the national parks."
White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters previously the decision the cancel the White House tours was made by the Secret Service because "it would be, in their view, impossible to staff those tours; that they would have to withdraw staff from those tours in order to avoid more furloughs and overtime pay cuts."
But in remarks on the Senate floor, Coburn said, "This is a Park Service issue, not a Secret Service issue."
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said the funds involved in Coburn's amendment would not go to the Secret Service, and as a result the tours "would not be affected." He also said the Heritage program, a public-private partnership, helps produce economic development and should not be cut.
The vote was 54-45 against the proposal. Montana Sen. Max Baucus, whose state borders on Yellowstone National Park, was the only Democrat to vote with Republicans.
The Park Service has announced some parks may open late to automobile traffic this spring because budget cuts have reduced funds available to clear roads of winter snow.
The overall legislation locks in the $85 billion in spending cuts through the end of the budget year, yet provides several departments and agencies with flexibility in coping with them. It extends flexibility to the Pentagon, the departments of Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, Justice, State and Commerce and the Food and Drug Administration.
But bipartisanship has its limits, and in private negotiations Republicans rejected Democratic attempts to provide flexibility for the rest of the government.
That set off a scramble among lawmakers to round up support for changes on a case-by-case basis.
The provision to prevent furloughs for federal meat inspectors had the support of industry as well as from both sides of the political aisle and cleared without a vote. It was supported by Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, a Democrat seeking re-election next year, and Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, who quietly helped Democrats round up the votes they needed to clear the legislation over a procedural hurdle.
The effect was to transfer $55 million to the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service from other accounts within the department, including deferred maintenance.
"Without this funding, every meat, poultry, and egg processing facility in the country would be forced to shut down for up to two weeks," said Blunt. "That means high food prices and less work for the hardworking Americans who work in these facilities nationwide."
In contrast to Blunt, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, opposed Democrats when they sought to overcome procedural hurdles earlier in the week.
In the days since, he repeatedly refused to let the bill advance unless he was given a chance to cancel about $50 million in cuts aimed at contract employees at more than 170 air traffic facilities around the country. In the end, his amendment was jettisoned without a vote.