WASHINGTON – Squabbling away the hours, the Senate on Thursday swatted aside last-ditch plans to block $85 billion in broad-based federal spending reductions as President Obama and Republicans blamed each other for the latest outbreak of gridlock, and the administration readied plans to put the cuts into effect.
So entrenched were the two parties that the Senate chaplain, Barry Black, opened the day’s session with a prayer that beseeched a higher power to intervene.
“Rise up, O God, and save us from ourselves,” he said of cuts due to take effect sometime today.
The immediate impact of the reductions on the public was uncertain, and the administration pulled back on its earlier warnings of long lines at airports and teacher layoffs.
On the Senate floor, a Republican proposal requiring Obama to propose alternative cuts that would cause less disruption in essential government services fell to overwhelming Democratic opposition, 62-38.
Moments later, a Democratic alternative to spread the cuts over a decade and replace half with higher taxes on millionaires and corporations won a bare majority, 51-49, well shy of the 60 needed to advance. All Republicans opposed it.
In a written statement after the votes, Obama lambasted Republicans. “They voted to let the entire burden of deficit reduction fall squarely on the middle class,” he said.
He said he would meet with congressional leaders from both parties at the White House today, but no one is expecting action before the cuts begin taking effect.
“We can build on the over $2.5 trillion in deficit reduction we’ve already achieved, but doing so will require Republicans to compromise,” the president said. “That’s how our democracy works, and that’s what the American people deserve.”
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said: “Obama and Senate Democrats are demanding more tax hikes to fuel more ‘stimulus’ spending.”
Though furloughs are feared by some, especially certain federal workers, there is little sign of business worry, let alone panic in the nation. Stocks declined slightly Thursday after trading near record highs. And unlike the “fiscal cliff” showdown two months ago, there are no deadlines for action to prevent tax increases from hitting nearly every American as there was then.
Still, there was talk of crisis.
“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, D-Wash., said that 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. At the same time, she said, the Democrats had proposed replacing half of the pending cuts with higher taxes on “the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations.”
But the Democratic measure also included small spending increases for a variety of programs such as biodiesel education, assistance for biomass crops and certification of organic foods.
Boehner and House Republicans show no hurry to alter the cuts, contending they provide leverage with Obama in their demand for savings from government benefit programs. Yet they are expected to launch legislation next week to replenish government coffers after current funding expires March 27, and that measure could become a magnet for new attempts to change today’s “sequester.”
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.
“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 in the past two years, Obama and congressional Republicans have agreed to more than $3.6 trillion in long-term deficit savings over a decade.
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.