WASHINGTON — Squabbling away the hours, the Senate moved toward certain defeat of last-minute plans to avoid $85 billion in broad-based spending reductions Thursday as the two political parties blamed each other for the latest outbreak of gridlock and the Obama administration readied plans to put the cuts into effect.
The immediate impact was uncertain as the Administration pulled back on its earlier warnings of long lines developing quickly at airports and teacher layoffs affecting classrooms. But there was no doubt about the outcome of back-to-back votes on the Senate floor.
There, a Republican plan requiring Obama to propose an alternative package of $85 billion in cuts faced rejection at the hands of Democrats.
And, just as surely, a Democratic proposal to spread the cuts over a decade and replace half of them with higher taxes on millionaires and corporations headed for defeat at Republican hands.
“We have the opportunity to avoid the kind of calamity and disaster that is being threatened and is completely unnecessary,” said Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who co-authored the Republican proposal.
“The question is, are we going to achieve these savings through badly designed spending cuts that make no attempt whatever to distinguish between more sensible government spending and less sensible spending?”
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington said that sensible distinguishing was precisely what Democrats had tried to do by proposing the deferral of Pentagon cuts until U.S. combat troops have come home from Afghanistan in two years’ time.
At the same time, she said the Democrats had reasonably proposed replacing half of the pending cuts with higher taxes on “the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations.”
Across the Capitol, House Speaker John Boehner led the chorus of Republican critics, saying that “Obama and Senate Democrats are demanding more tax hikes to fuel more `stimulus’ spending.”
In fact, the Democratic measure included small increases in funding for a variety of small programs such as biodiesel education, assistance for biomass crops and certification of organic foods.
With no last-minute plans to seek a delay in the looming cuts, Obama invited Boehner and the other top leaders of Congress to a White House meeting on the subject on Friday.
It was not clear whether he would seek negotiations to replace the across-the-board cuts before they begin to bite.
But already, some Republicans held out hope the current struggle might lead to talks on completing work on the final piece of a deficit reduction package that has been more than two agonizing years in the making.
“The objective here ought to be not just to deal with sequester but to deal with the underlying spending problems, which require tax reform” as well as reform of benefit programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
In a cycle of crisis followed by compromise over the past two years, Obama and congressional Republicans have agreed to more than $3.6 trillion in long-term deficit savings over a decade. While much of that has come from spending restraint, the GOP let legislation pass late last year that raises taxes on upper-income Americans by $600 million.
None of the savings to date has come from the big benefit programs that lawmakers in both parties say must be tackled if the country is to gain control over its finances. Each party fears the political fallout of confronting them on their own, but Democrats, in particular, are reluctant to scale back programs that they count as their political birthright.
Their rival speeches on the Senate floor weren’t the first time that Toomey and Murray disagreed on economic issues.
Both served on a so-called congressional Supercommittee in 2011 that was charged with producing at least $1.2 trillion in savings over a decade.
The panel deadlocked, automatically triggering the across-the-board cuts that now are imminent.
As constituted, the cuts would total $85 billion through the end of the current budget year – Sept. 30 – half each from defense and non-defense programs. Large parts of the budget are off-limits, including programs for veterans, Social Security and Medicare benefits.
The Republican alternative would require Obama to propose an alternative that relied exclusively on spending cuts, ruled out tax increases and limited what he could take from Pentagon accounts. Congress could reject his new approach, but under the alternative, his recommendations would be likely to take effect.
The Democratic measure would have canceled the $85 billion in cuts, and replaced them with a combination of tax increases and cuts to defense and farm programs that would phase in over a decade. Under that plan, deficits would rise by more $42 billion in the first year and $38 billion over the two following years before gradually beginning to decline.