Updated, 5:30 p.m.
Two competing government funding bills fell short in the Senate on Wednesday, sending congressional leaders and the White House back to the negotiating table to try to work out a budget compromise.
The failure of both measures, which had been anticipated by leaders in both parties, came as lawmakers are wrangling over a way forward on funding the government through Sept. 30. A current short-term funding measure, which was signed into law by President Obama last week, is set to expire on March 18.
The next steps are not clear. Republican leaders said no further talks have been scheduled with Democrats. Senate Democratic leaders met with the president at the White House Wednesday afternoon to plot strategy.
The first of the competing plans, which passed the House last month, would have cut $61 billion across federal agencies through the end of September; it failed on a 44 to 56 vote, with three Republicans joining all Democrats to oppose the measure. The three Republicans voting “no” -- Sens. Mike Lee (Utah), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Jim DeMint (S.C.) -- are all members of the Senate Tea Party Caucus who have called for deeper spending cuts.
All of the moderate Republicans in the Senate, including Sens. Scott Brown (Mass.), Olympia Snowe (Maine), Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Mark Kirk (Ill.), backed the measure. Several of those senators are up for re-election in 2012 and faced a tough choice in backing the bill, which would make deep cut to federal programs.
The second plan, put forth by Senate Democrats, would have cut less than $5 billion in federal spending. It failed Wednesday on a 42-to-58 vote — winning even fewer votes than the House Republican bill. Eleven Democrats broke ranks to join Republicans in voting against the measure.
White House budget director Jack Lew called the votes “pretty significant.” They established that “there aren’t the votes there to go to the full level of the House bill.”
Now, Lew said, “leaders on both sides need to work to middle ground and work to make additional savings” without going “across the line which from either party’s view would be unacceptable.”
Lew left the door open to another temporary resolution to fund the government past March 18, saying talks over the rest of the fiscal year may not be completed within the next week.
“There’s broad consensus that we shouldn’t shut the government down. We ought to be able to work our way through this,” Lew said. “If there’s not enough time to resolve a full year bill between now and next Friday, we’re going to need to work toward a short-term agreement.”
Meanwhile, in a speech Wednesday morning at the Center for American Progress, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) called for a “reset” in budget talks that would end the exclusive focus on discretionary programs, and expand the talks to include higher taxes and the entitlement programs that are driving deficits skyward.
“In the coming weeks, as the negotiations led by the White House reconvene, we should approach the talks with fresh eyes and a new mindset,” Schumer said. “Rather than continuing the fixation on domestic discretionary cuts, the next offer and counteroffer should incorporate mandatory cuts and revenue raisers into the mix.”
He added that “we will only put a dent in the deficit through shared sacrifice across all parts of the budget.... A bipartisan compromise simply will not be found in discretionary spending cuts alone.”
House Republican leaders have suggested in recent days that another stopgap measure, similar to the one passed last week, may be necessary in order to avert a government shutdown on March 18.
Among the Democrats voting against the Senate Democratic plan on Wednesday were Sens. Kay Hagan (N.C.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Mark Udall (Colo.), Jim Webb (Va.), Michael Bennet (Colo.), Carl Levin (Mich.) and Herb Kohl (Wis.); Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who caucuses with Democrats, also voted against the measure.