WASHINGTON — A freshman Democratic senator accused President Barack Obama on Tuesday of failing to provide leadership on a worsening national deficit as top Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill spent more time pointing fingers than seeking common ground on a must-do measure to fund the government for the next six months.
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Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., called on Obama to lead “tough negotiations” on wrapping up last year’s unfinished budget work and said that “right now, that is not happening.”
“When it comes to an issue of significant national importance, the president must lead,” Manchin said. The freshman senator faces re-election next year in a state where voters are generally hostile to Obama.
White House press secretary Jay Carney countered by saying that Obama’s “leadership and seriousness about the need to live within our means, cut spending where we can is quite clear.”
At the Capitol, the top Democratic leader continued his assault on the House-passed spending measure, which contains bruising cuts to many domestic programs. A vote looms on the GOP-drafted legislation, as well as a Democratic alternative, in the Senate later this week
Republicans say the Democratic plan, which would cut domestic agency operating budgets by about 3 percent relative to last year, doesn’t go nearly far enough as the GOP plan, which cuts agencies by about 13 percent on average – cuts that would feel twice as deep because they would be implemented over the second half of the budget year ending Sept. 30.
“We have to get off the number game,” said Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who called the GOP bill “a destructive piece of legislation.” Reid suggested cutting farm programs and exploration subsidies for oil companies as ways to bridge the gap.
Looming in the Senate Wednesday afternoon are test votes on the House GOP plan and the milder alternative from Senate Democrats, designed to prod the Obama administration, Republicans dominating the House and the Democratic-led Senate to settle gaping differences.
Democrats say the votes in the Senate would demonstrate to tea party-backed House GOP freshmen that their bill is a dead issue in the Senate and that they need to move closer to their demands for smaller budget cuts.
Neither measure can muster the 60 votes required under Senate procedures to advance; not a single Democrat is likely to vote for the GOP measure, and some may shy away from the Democratic bill as well. That could put pressure on House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, as well as other congressional leaders of both parties to find a compromise.
At the same time, the vote on the Senate Democratic alternative offering up another $5 billion in spending cuts is unlikely to get unanimous support from Democrats, especially moderates – like Manchin – up for re-election in 2012.
One such Democrat, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, said the Democratic measure “doesn’t go far enough,” but she hadn’t decided whether to support it. Manchin agreed and said the kubuki theater was a foolish waste of time.
“Republicans will say Democrats don’t go far enough. Democrats will say Republicans go too far,” Manchin said. “The truth is both are right, and both proposals will fail. Worse still, everyone in Congress knows they will fail.”
Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the ongoing debate over funding federal agencies through Sept. 30 “is just a dress rehearsal” for a bigger debate on benefit programs like Medicare that are the real drivers of the spiraling federal budget.
“Democrats are going to have to do a lot better than this if we stand a chance of getting our nation’s fiscal house in order,” McConnell said. “Frankly, it’s embarrassing.
McConnell also spoke of possible furloughs of federal workers as spending cuts are implemented.
“The only entity in America that’s not sacrificing during this economic downturn is federal government workers,” McConnell said. “I can’t guarantee that somebody might not … be affected. But we have largely insulated the federal government from this recession.”
The House GOP measure makes sweeping cuts to domestic programs whose budgets are set each year by Congress, including politically sensitive programs beyond Head Start and Pell Grants. Money for food inspection, enforcing environmental regulations, grants to local schools and police and fire departments, and community development grants for local governments would also be sharply reduced.
The Democratic alternative would cut spending by $11 billion from last year’s levels and limit increases for the Pentagon’s core military operations to just 1 percent, far less than increases received in previous years.
The Senate Democratic plan falls well shy of the cuts sought by Republicans but demonstrates considerable movement from where the party was last year when it sought to pass an omnibus spending bill with a price tag $30 billion higher than the current measure. Senate Republicans blocked the effort.
The lack of progress already has House leaders openly contemplating another stopgap spending bill to prevent a government shutdown when a current measure expires near the end of next week.
House GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy told reporters Tuesday that the chamber will probably propose a short-term measure to fund the government between two and four weeks.