Senate panel schedules markup of spending bills

The Senate Appropriations Committee announced Tuesday it will begin marking up fiscal 2011 spending bills this week, putting a process into motion that will allow Democrats to blow right past a Republican proposal to clamp down on spending.

Seeking to tap into discontent over the deficit, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and all the Republican appropriators on Tuesday called on Democrats to cap fiscal 2011 discretionary spending at $1.108 trillion, about $20 billion less than requested by President Obama in his fiscal 2011 budget.

But with the Senate Appropriations Committee proceeding to its first full committee markup Thursday, it is likely Democrats will all but ignore the GOP proposal.

On that day, the full committee will mark up the Military Construction-VA Appropriations bill, Homeland Security Appropriations bill and the Agriculture Appropriations bill. The panel will also consider the so-called 302b allocations, which set the top line funding level for each of the 12 annual appropriations bills.

Still, Republicans pushed what they see as a potent election-year message.

"As most of you probably know, we've increased discretionary spending 17 percent since the president came to office," McConnell said at his weekly news conference.

"So we're pleased to announce today that we're going to recommend a smaller pie, if you will, a smaller discretionary spending budget to our friends in the majority and hope they will join us," McConnell said.

The proposal is similar to an amendment offered a few times this year by Sens. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., to impose multiyear discretionary spending caps, beginning with a near-freeze next year.

Sessions offered the proposal last month to legislation that would have extended unemployment insurance. The amendment was rejected -- on a 57-41 vote -- when it failed to win the 60 votes needed to waive applicable budget rules after a point of order was raised against it.

Democratic leadership and Appropriations Committee aides declined to comment on the Republican proposal, but pointed to comments made by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, last month when he spoke against the Sessions-McCaskill amendment on the floor.

In his floor speech, Inouye said the amendment is critically flawed because it "does nothing to seriously reduce the deficit" and does not address the main drivers of the deficit: "unchecked mandatory spending and the huge tax cuts for the wealthy passed, with no offsets, by the previous administration."

On Tuesday, Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., said, "We're pleased today to announce that we have unanimity of support for a budget number that reflects a decision that the Senate has already made and expressed itself through recorded votes, and we hope that we can stick to it."

Senate Budget Committee ranking member Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who is also an appropriator, said the proposal is designed to "get overall discipline" on the appropriations process "before we start."

He added that he expects that Republican appropriators will vote against the bills during the markups if they exceed the overall cap.

Republicans aides contend the $1.108 trillion is $26 billion over the discretionary level sought by Obama, which they put at $1.134 trillion -- a figure that includes funding for Pell Grants that has been requested as mandatory spending, but is expected to end up as discretionary spending instead.

They also said the figure is $16 billion less than the $1.124 billion included in the budget resolution approved by the Senate Budget Committee in April.

The Republicans have been increasingly looking for opportunities to cast themselves as bulwarks against Washington spending, which they believe will pay off in the midterm elections.

"The American people are saying to us, you're spending too much, you're running up too many debts and we expect you to do something about it," McConnell said.

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