Senators Come Around to Cutting Own Budgets

Posted March 16, 2011 at 7:37pm

The Senate agreed Wednesday to an amendment expressing support for reducing the chamber’s budget by at least 5 percent for the rest of the fiscal year.

While the amendment itself would not cut the budget, the 98-1 vote signaled that the Senate is ready to make sacrifices. Later in the day, the chamber also adopted a resolution sponsored by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) with language similar to the amendment.

Congress has yet to complete a spending bill that would cover the remainder of the fiscal year, and the Senate is expected to clear a three-week continuing resolution Thursday to buy time for negotiations on the longer-term measure. The fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch and the amendment’s sponsor, said the cuts would apply only to Senate offices and not the Congressional support agencies, such as the Capitol Police and the Architect of the Capitol.

However, the amendment states that “the offices and agencies that serve Members of Congress must be reduced along with the rest of the budget,” although it doesn’t attach a percentage.

“We’ll just try to figure out what it is going to be and how it is going to apply, but I suspect it is going to be across the board” among Members, committees and leadership, Nelson said. “I think we have to set a standard here and lead the way if we’re going to make other cuts.”

In reducing its expenditures, the Senate would follow the House, which voted to cut its own budget by 5 percent in January and has since followed up accordingly with reduced committee budget requests.

Although Wicker voted for the amendment, he took to the floor to remind his colleagues that he was the first Senator to propose a 5 percent cut, but his resolution was rejected in January, after the House vote. His second such resolution was adopted by unanimous consent Wednesday.

“I rise to agree with my colleague from Nebraska, to support his amendment and congratulate him on his newfound enthusiasm for this idea,” the Mississippi Republican said. “I commend the Senator from Nebraska for coming to this idea somewhat late, but support this amendment nonetheless.”

Although 5 percent is the target, the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee’s ranking member, Sen. John Hoeven, noted that the amendment’s language states “at least 5 percent,” and he will seek to cut at least 2 percentage points more than that.

The House, the North Dakota Republican said, actually cut 7 percent from its budget, because the Judiciary and Appropriations committees absorbed cuts deeper than 5 percent.

“I think we should look at making sure we do at least as much as the House did,” he added.

If he doubles that number, Hoeven might have an ally in Sen. Jeff Sessions, the only Senator to vote against the Nelson amendment. The Alabama Republican said he would like to see a 15 percent reduction and that the amendment simply wasn’t enough.

“A lot of our Members are still in denial,” Sessions said. “We had some very tight budgets in the early Reagan years, and you just made do. You didn’t travel as much. My good friend the U.S. attorney from Atlanta, we roomed together at conferences to save the taxpayers money.”

Sessions did say that had he known at the time of the vote that the bill called for “at least 5 percent” and that it only applied to the rest of the year, he might have voted for it.

In voting against a cut because it’s not large enough, Sessions employed reasoning often cited by Sen. Rand Paul. The Kentucky Republican, however, did vote for the Nelson amendment.

“It didn’t actually cut anything,” he said. “But I’m all for cutting.”

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander, who is also the ranking member of the Rules and Administration Committee, said he supports the amendment.

“Congress needs to look at every part of the federal government’s budget and find areas to reduce spending — and that includes finding ways to lower costs in our own Senate offices,” he said in a statement.

All told, the dollar amount of a 5 percent cut is hard to tell. Half of the fiscal year has already passed, and appropriators will have to figure out how much money is left to be spent, then slice 5 percent.

The amendment was attached to legislation that would reauthorize the Small Business Innovation Research and the Small Business Technology Transfer programs. The Senate is scheduled to continue consideration of the bill Thursday, then proceed to the three-week stopgap spending measure. The chamber is expected to return to the small-business research bill following next week’s recess.