Senate wants reports on how automatic budget cuts will affect domestic, defense programs

The Senate has agreed to require the Office of Management and Budget and the Pentagon to detail how federal agencies will implement a deep automatic budget cut set to take effect in January, as Congress begins to brace for dramatic reductions that are scheduled to occur as a result of last summer’s deal to raise the debt ceiling.

The request came in an amendment to the nearly $1 trillion farm bill and was a compromise between Republicans — who had wanted to hear more about defense cuts — and Democrats, who asked for details about domestic reductions as well.

The goal was to lay out the damage that the automatic cuts would cause, compelling an agreement to avert them.

The Senate approved the farm bill Thursday on a 64 to 35 vote. The five-year measure would cut roughly $23.6 billion in subsidies and other expenditures in the next decade, a historically significant sum for the usually bloated piece of legislation.

The bill slashes tens of billions of dollars in direct subsidies to farmers and in the federal food stamp program, going well beyond cuts proposed by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles fiscal commission, but short of reductions sought by President Obama and House Republicans.


Members of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, led by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), center, praise the bipartisan passage of the farm bill Thursday at the Capitol in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Regardless, senators said on Thursday that the bill’s lower price tag — and weeks of bipartisan negotiations over its parameters — should bode well for trickier negotiations later this year over taxes and spending.

“This is a good precedent of starting to reduce the deficit in a way where both political parties are working together,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) told reporters after the vote.

The amendment dealing with the end-of-year budget cut was the latest step taken by Congress as members of both parties warily eye a series of consequential fiscal decisions they must make by the end of the year, determining how to deal with the budget cuts, as well as the expiration of a series of tax cuts.

As part of last summer’s deal to raise the debt ceiling, Congress agreed the budget would be automatically cut by $1.2 trillion over 10 years if a special “supercommittee” failed to come up with a deal to achieve the same level of deficit reduction in a more targeted manner. The cuts were to be split evenly between defense and domestic programs, to inflict pain on both parties and compel agreement.

Republicans have been raising alarms about the possible harm to national security of allowing the defense cuts to proceed and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) pushed for a report from the Pentagon. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) countered that the effect of both domestic and defense cuts should be examined.

Democrats think the sequestration remains a powerful leverage to compel an agreement on deficit reduction after the election.

The farm bill moves next to the House, where Republicans are expected to propose deeper cuts in farm and food policy. Debate is expected to begin next month.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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