WASHINGTON -- The Senate approved legislation Wednesday to lock in $85 billion in widely decried spending cuts aimed at restraining soaring federal deficits -- and to avoid a government shutdown just a week away.
President Barack Obama's fellow Democrats rejected a call to reopen White House tours scrapped because of the tightened spending. Federal meat inspectors were spared furloughs. But more than 100 small- and medium-sized air traffic facilities were left exposed to possible closure, as the two parties alternately clashed and cooperated over proposals to take the edge off across-the-board spending cuts that took effect March 1.
Final House approval of the measure is likely as early as today. Mr. Obama's signature is a certainty, meaning the cuts will remain in place at least through the end of the budget year Sept. 30 -- even though he and lawmakers in both parties have criticized them as random, rather than targeted. Mr. Obama argued strongly against them in campaign-style appearances, predicting painful consequences, before they began taking effect, and Republicans objected to the impact of Pentagon reductions.
Without changes, the $85 billion in cuts for the current year will swell to nearly $1 trillion over a decade, enough to make at least a small dent in federal deficits but still requiring program cuts that both parties' lawmakers say are unsustainable politically. As a result, negotiations are possible later this year to replace the cuts with different savings.
The administration as well as Republicans picked and chose their arguments for flexibility in this year's cuts.
Earlier this week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said of the effort to prevent inspector layoffs that could disrupt the food supply chain: "My hope is that gets done. If it does not, come mid-July, we will furlough meat inspectors." His remarks departed from the administration's general position that flexibility should ease all cuts or none at all. Nor did the White House resist a bipartisan plan to prevent any tuition assistance program cuts for military members.
The final vote was 73-26, with 51 Democrats, 20 Republicans and two independents in favor and 25 Republicans and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., opposed.
Over in the House, Minority Democrats advanced a plan for next fiscal year spending that calls for $1 trillion in higher taxes, $500 billion in spending cuts over a decade and a $200 billion economic stimulus package. Majority Republicans rejected it, 253-165.
The House Republicans today are expected to approve their own, very different blueprint. It calls for $4.6 trillion in spending cuts over a decade and no tax increases, a combination that projects to a balanced budget in 10 years' time. That spending plan would indeed be simply a blueprint, lacking any actual control over federal spending.
The issues were grittier in the Senate, where lawmakers grappled with the immediate impact of across-the-board cuts on individual programs.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a deficit hawk, said he wanted to reopen the White House tours, shut down since earlier in the month. He said his proposal would take about $8 million from the National Heritage Partnership Program and apply it toward "opening up the tours at the White House, opening up Yellowstone National Park and the rest of the national parks."
White House press secretary Jay Carney previously said the decision to cancel White House tours was made by the Secret Service, because "it would be, in their view, impossible to staff those tours; that they would have to withdraw staff from those tours in order to avoid more furloughs and overtime pay cuts."
In Senate floor remarks, Mr. Coburn insisted, "This is a Park Service issue, not a Secret Service issue." But Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said the funds involved in Mr. Coburn's amendment would not go to the Secret Service, and as a result, the tours "would not be affected."
The vote was 54-45 against the proposal. Montana Sen. Max Baucus, whose state borders on Yellowstone National Park, was the only Democrat to vote with the Republicans. The Park Service has announced that some parks may open late to automobile traffic this spring because budget cuts have reduced funds available to clear roads of winter snow.
The overall legislation locks in the $85 billion in spending cuts through the budget year's end, yet provides several departments and agencies with flexibility in coping with them. It extends flexibility to the Pentagon, the departments of Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, Justice, State and Commerce and the Food and Drug Administration.
The provision to prevent furloughs for federal meat inspectors had broad support.