CR Votes Could Clear Way for Bipartisan Deal

Posted March 7, 2011 at 6:34pm

Senate Democrats and House Republicans said Senate votes as soon as today on competing stopgap spending bills could break their impasse over how to fund the government through Sept. 30. 

The expected votes — one on the Republicans’ House-passed proposal and the second on a Senate Democratic alternative — are partly designed to send a message to conservative freshmen that a compromise is necessary. The House bill calls for $61 billion in spending cuts, while the Senate plan offers $10.5 billion in reductions. 

Late Monday afternoon, Senate leaders were considering holding side-by-side votes on the House-passed bill and the Senate Democratic alternative. Under an agreement that had not been finalized as of press time, each proposal would require a 60-vote threshold, and aides expected that neither bill would pass. 

Instead, the votes are meant to lay down markers for the real negotiations over a long-term spending plan. Republicans have rejected the Democratic proposal as insufficient, while Democrats have said the House GOP measure goes too far. President Barack Obama dispatched Vice President Joseph Biden, Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew and Chief of Staff William Daley to the Hill last week to kick off talks among leaders on a long-term budget deal, but most observers said any real negotiations are on hold until after today’s votes.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin said the vote on the House-passed proposal would “demonstrate to Republicans in the House” that it “is not going to be passed in the Senate.” 

“I think many of the veterans in the House know that, but some of the new Members may not,” the Illinois Democrat said. “If H.R. 1 does not get 60 votes … I’m sure that Speaker Boehner will be sitting down with the caucus and saying … ‘What’s our next position? Where do we go from here?’” 

Aides on both sides said the path forward is still unclear. 

House Republicans said the Senate votes could help educate freshmen about the stark realities of Congress.

Leadership aides explained that for much of the GOP Conference, which includes 87 new Members, the word compromise is synonymous with defeat. “For a lot of them ‘compromise’ means compromising their principles,” one aide said.

The aide added that over the coming weeks, Republican leaders will have to do their best to explain to Members that it’s OK to accept spending cuts less than the $61 billion, and that it does not mean Republicans are capitulating. 

“If you strive for the stars and fail, at some level you have to be OK with striving for what’s achievable and doing a victory lap” once you’ve won, a GOP aide said.

In the weeks since becoming Speaker, John Boehner (R-Ohio) has tried to educate his Members about the complexities of the legislative process. Along those lines, Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) have made it a practice of explaining the ins and outs of the budget process, federal spending and the debt ceiling, and soliciting feedback from freshmen.

Republican leaders tried to use last month’s debate on the long-term continuing resolution to demonstrate to their freshmen that sometimes their ideas wouldn’t have enough support to pass. The CR was brought up under an open process under which hundreds of amendments were considered.

Aides said leaders hope the CR debate and efforts to educate Members about the process have helped lay the groundwork for a long-term budget compromise. But more work needs to be done. House Appropriations Committee Republicans have already begun to discuss bringing up a second, short-term CR to keep the government funded until a final, broader agreement can be worked out. The House and Senate passed — and Obama signed — a short-term CR last week to keep the government funded until March 18 as Members try to reach a deal on a longer-term plan.

It is still unclear how long that CR would last and the level of additional spending cuts it would contain. The first short-term CR contained $4 billion in spending reductions.

One veteran Republican aide argued the Conference has put itself in a tough spot since it vowed to cut $100 billion in spending this year. 

“Cutting anything at all in this CR is a victory, [but] we’ve messaged ourselves into a box,” the aide said.