Senate still wrangling over spending bill

By Paul Kane and Felicia Sonmez
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; A06

Senate leaders delayed until Wednesday consideration of a bill to fund the government through Sept. 30, as Democrats accused Republicans of reneging on an agreement to stage side-by-side votes on two competing plans to cut spending.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) charged that GOP senators were afraid to vote on a House proposal to cut $61 billion from domestic agencies over the next six months, a bill Reid derided as the "tea party plan."

"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 speech on the Senate floor. "Now it seems Republicans themselves must have finally read their own budget."

Republicans accused Reid of trying to divert attention from divisions in his own party, highlighting a speech Tuesday by freshman Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) that accused the White House of failing to show leadership in the budget talks.

With a March 18 deadline looming, the White House and Senate Democrats have offered a plan to cut less than $5 billion from domestic agencies through the remainder of the fiscal year, a proposal that even some moderate Democrats have criticized as insufficient in light of record budget deficits.

Last week, in talks with Vice President Biden, Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) agreed to bring both proposals to the Senate floor, where neither is expected to muster the 60 votes needed to avert a filibuster. If both proposals fail, both sides would have leverage to demand a compromise from liberals resisting spending cuts and conservatives demanding more.

But on Tuesday, some Republicans balked at supporting the House plan, despite an appeal for party unity from McConnell. For many Senate Republicans, the House measure is littered with political land mines.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), the Senate's most liberal Republican, for example, is facing the prospect of a conservative tea party challenge in next year's GOP primary. If she votes for the House bill to appeal to conservatives, she risks alienating voters who depend on programs slated for deep cuts, such as home heating assistance.

Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) is also trying to position himself for next year's general election in a liberal state that has generally supported education and environmental programs, which would suffer under the House bill.

Democrats face their own defections, underscoring the need to begin serious bipartisan talks on a budget bill that can actually pass. Talks with Biden are expected to resume later this week, after the Senate votes on the two plans.

Meanwhile, in a speech Wednesday at the Center for American Progress, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) plans to call on lawmakers to merge talks over the short-term spending cuts with the Gang of Six bipartisan negotiations over the budget for next year and beyond. Doing so, he suggested in a statement, would "broaden the playing field" - now narrowly focused on the domestic programs that make up less than a fifth of overall federal spending - to include cuts to the entitlement programs that make up nearly two-thirds of federal spending, as well as higher revenue.

Schumer did not indicate what provisions he hopes to include in this "all of the above" strategy, but President Obama proposed several new sources of revenue in his latest budget blueprint, including eliminating long-standing tax breaks for multinational corporations and oil and gas companies.

Staff writer Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.

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