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Senate funding vote delayed as parties trade barbs over competing proposals

By Paul Kane and Felicia Sonmez
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; 4:04 PM

After delaying a planned Tuesday vote on the federal spending bill, Senate leaders traded accusations over the motives behind their competing proposals to keep the government from shutting down later this month.

Beneath the surface, each side angled to best position itself to inflict political pain on the opposition, especially for a collection of senators up for reelection next year. Those Republican and Democratic lawmakers face particular risks in weighing the demands of tea party and other anti-spending voters against their less conservative constituents.

After the votes, both of which are expected to fail, lawmakers expect to resume bipartisan talks with the White House as they stare at a March 18 deadline to either agree on funding for the rest of the year or approve another stopgap measure to avoid a federal shutdown.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) accused Republicans of reneging on last week's agreement to hold side-by-side votes on the two proposals and said GOP senators were afraid to vote on the "tea party plan" that House Republicans approved last month. That austere fiscal outline slashes spending by a total of $61 billion for hundreds of federal agencies and kills funding for dozens of programs or offices.

"Their plan slashes billions from the budget and hopes no one will look past the price tag. Because Republicans know that once the country sees what's in the fine print, it will run away from it as fast as they can," Reid said during a floor speech. "Now it seems Republicans themselves must have finally read their own budget."

Republicans accused Reid of trying to divert attention from the divisions within his caucus, highlighting freshman West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin's sharp criticism of the White House, which he said has failed to lead during the negotiations.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) vowed to move ahead with the competing proposals but said the original plan to hold votes Tuesday afternoon would be delayed as Republicans considered the legislation.

"There will be votes on both the House-passed bill and the status quo Democrat bill," Don Stewart, McConnell's spokesman, said in a statement. "That has never been in question. Senator Reid asked Friday that they both be set at a 60-vote threshold, and I expect that will be the case."

The House plan, approved Feb. 19 on a party-line vote by the GOP conference led by Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio), is rife with politically touchy measures for a handful or more Senate Republicans.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, the most liberal Republican, is facing the prospect of a conservative tea party challenge in next year's GOP primary in Maine, placing her in a quandary: Vote yes to try to gain support of conservatives wary of her past voting record or vote against funding for programs she has long considered critical to her state, including home heating assistance that would be devastated by the Boehner proposal.

Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), in the year since taking the seat once held by Edward M. Kennedy, has proved to be an independent vote. He must position himself for next year's general election in a liberal state that has generally supported education and environmental programs that would suffer deep gashes in funding.

A host of other Senate Republicans, particularly those on the Appropriations Committee, were set to approve funding levels for this fiscal year that would have been almost $100 billion higher than the Boehner draft. But those talks collapsed after the midterm elections.

McConnell is wary of watching a large group of Republicans bolt from the House measure and is working to unify the conference.

Meanwhile, Reid has his own flank problem. Manchin struck a strong anti-spending tone in his Tuesday floor speech. He said Reid's plan to cut an additional $6.5 billion from the budget didn't got far enough. But he also accused the House Republicans of crafting a document that "blindly hacks the budget." Facing reelection in 2012, Manchin called on President Obama to wade deeper into the mix and lead what amounts to a bipartisan summit.

"This debate will be decided when the president leads these tough negotiations. And, right now, that is not happening," Manchin said.

Several other Senate Democrats have tried to gain credit as spending foes in the wake of the 2010 election results. Sens. Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Jon Tester (Mont.) both face difficult reelection battles next year.

Responding to Manchin, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) defended the role of the White House in the spending negotiations and brushed aside Manchin's complaint that Vice President Biden is out of the country in the midst of the spending debate.

"The point person is not out of the country," Hoyer told reporters. "The point person is the president of the United States. And the president of the United States and his people are fully engaged in this effort."

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