Senate Dems play waiting game on continuing resolution

With a March 4 deadline fast approaching for enacting legislation to fund the remainder of fiscal year 2011, Senate Democrats are biding their time while the GOP-led House races to pass a spending bill to cut discretionary spending by nearly $35 billion.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was poised on Tuesday evening to enter the $1.055 trillion discretionary spending cap for the remainder of fiscal 2011 into the record, which makes it binding under House rules approved in January.

Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee used its first meeting of the year to adopt the top-line funding limits for all 12 appropriations bills. But in a possible omen of future feuding between hard-line and harder-line budget cutters in the House GOP, two members, Reps. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., complained that the bill didn't go far enough and voted against it.

House Republicans pledged in September to roll back nonsecurity discretionary spending to fiscal 2008, which amounts to roughly $100 billion less than requested in President Obama's fiscal 2011 budget. The $1.055 trillion represents a $74 billion cut from Obama's spending request for 2011, but the real cuts would be about half that much because Congress never acted on Obama's request.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said the spending plan represents a "down payment" on the $100 billion pledge.

"The fact that you show that kind of discipline and restraint I think will echo around the countryside and will eventually instill confidence in employers to hire more Americans to work," Rogers told lawmakers. "In many ways, this is sort of a jobs bill because it will encourage the people paying the taxes out there that this Congress finally is getting serious about controlling excessive spending."

Democrats were disdainful of Rogers's claim and warned that the cuts could stop the precarious economic recovery in its tracks.

"I am concerned that the budget allocations we are considering today will disrupt even the meager job gains we are seeing," said Appropriations ranking member Norm Dicks, D-Wash. "Jamming on the fiscal brakes so quickly will have the opposite effect of what you intend: it will inhibit job growth by slowing down economic growth and increasing the deficit."

But the real fight will be with the Democratic-controlled Senate, where leaders are deliberately slow-walking their own budget legislation.

House GOP leaders hope to pass their spending bill next week. But with both chambers out the following week for the Presidents Day recess, the Senate may not take up the measure until the last week in February -- one week before the current stop-gap spending measure expires on March 4.

There isn't much House Republicans can do. Since the House traditionally writes spending bills and sends them to the Senate, the onus is on the House to send the Senate a short-term CR while the chambers negotiate a possible compromise.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, has already predicted that Congress will end up passing another short-term CR -- which would be the fourth since the current fiscal year began on October 1. That would be at least a partial victory for Democrats, because it would maintain funding at current levels.

Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, chairman of the Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, acknowledged that one or more short-term CRs may be needed.

Simpson also warned his colleagues that Republicans will try to cut even more on the House floor and that many of those amendments will pass, which will make it even harder for the GOP package to pass the Senate.

"The [cuts in the] CR will be substantially added to by amendments," Simpson said. "The more we add on the less likely it is that we will be able to get [a legislative compromise] with the Senate."

That kind of stalemate increases the risk of a government shutdown on March 5 -- a move that proved disastrous to Republicans during a similar standoff in the 1990s -- or a government default on its interest payments if hard-line Republicans refuse to support an increase in the debt ceiling later this spring.

"What is really of concern is that if our posture becomes 'if we can't get a [compromise] in the Senate that can pass in the House then we have a government shutdown," Simpson said. "That didn't work out too good before. I don't think our leadership wants to do that, but unless we can get a [compromise] done, it kind of leads in that direction."

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