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Senate Set to Turn Back Democratic and GOP Sequester Alternatives

The Senate is expected to defeat Thursday competing Democratic and Republican alternatives to the $85.3 billion in automatic spending cuts scheduled to begin Friday.

Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., proposes to replace the percentage cuts imposed by a provision of the 2011 debt limit agreement with a package of revenue increases and alternative savings.

Senate Republicans settled late Wednesday on a sequester substitute that would give President Barack Obama until March 15 to send Congress an alternative package of targeted spending cuts. Lawmakers could block the president’s plan only by adopting within seven days a resolution of disapproval that would require Obama’s signature or the support of a veto-proof majority.

The Republican alternative would rule out tax increases or increases in any non-defense accounts. No more than half the president’s proposed cuts could come from the defense portion of the budget, and defense cuts would have to be consistent with policies established by the fiscal 2013 defense authorization law (PL 112-239).

The president’s plan would need to have the effect of reducing government outlays by at least $82.5 billion over six years.

Reid predicted the Republican plan will be soundly rejected by majority Democrats. But his own plan is also likely to be rejected. Many Republicans refuse to support any tax increase.

Thursday’s votes will come on motions to invoke cloture, or limit debate, on motions to proceed to the Democratic and Republican sequester alternatives. Neither plan is expected to muster the 60 votes needed to advance. Barring some last-minute bipartisan, bicameral compromise, the scheduled automatic cuts would be in effect when Obama sends an implementation order to the Office of Management and Budget sometime Friday.

Senate Republicans discussed various sequester alternatives during their caucus luncheon Wednesday, including the plan to give the president spending cut flexibility proposed by James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma and Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., made a pitch for giving the president flexibility to reframe the spending reductions, and spoke to the concerns of lawmakers wary of giving the executive branch more authority over spending decisions. “Let’s be clear about the goal here,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “The goal isn’t to hand over congressional authority. It’s to make sure these cuts actually happen.”

The Inhofe-Toomey proposal (S 16) encountered resistance from appropriators. Susan Collins, R-Maine, offered a plan to route administration spending cut proposals through appropriators.

Rand Paul, R-Ky., offered an alternative roster of spending cuts including a federal hiring freeze, salary reductions, repeal of the Davis-Bacon prevailing wage requirement for federal contracts and elimination of $20 billion a year in foreign aid.

Reid and McConnell agreed earlier to hold votes on Reid’s $110 billion sequester-replacement proposal (S 388) and a single GOP alternative. Reid would replace automatic cuts with a tax increase on people with incomes of more than $1 million, elimination of some direct farm payments and some defense cuts.

Although Reid strongly opposes the GOP flexibility proposal, Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan said he wanted to study the plan. He said Congress should not cede authority over the design of spending cuts, but added that the allowance for a disapproval resolution might effectively keep control over spending cuts in Congress. “It may avoid the constitutional issue, if it has a congressional disapproval,” Levin said. “But it still has the problem that it still has the cuts.”

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