Days before the March 1 deadline, Senate Republicans are circulating a draft bill that would cancel $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts and instead turn over authority to President Barack Obama to achieve the same level of savings under a plan to be filed by March 8.
The five- page document, which has the tacit support of Senate GOP leaders, represents a remarkable shift for the party. Having railed against Senate Democrats for not passing a budget, Republicans are now proposing that Congress surrender an important piece of its Constitutional “power of the purse” for the last seven months of this fiscal year.
As proposed, lawmakers would retain the power to overturn the president’s spending plan by March 22, but only under a resolution of disapproval that would demand two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate to prevail over an Obama veto.
The proposal would require — like the sequester — that no more than $42.6 billion of the cuts come at the expense of defense programs. But the elaborate, almost Rube Goldberg construct is already provoking sharp criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike and reflects a political scramble to escape the fallout from the sequester.
The sweep of the first GOP option is striking. If Congress were to follow this course, significant power would be shifted to the president, an unusual maneuver that even Obama himself and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have scoffed at. But the plan appears to have the backing of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and is being advanced by conservative Republicans who don’t want the White House to continue using the sequester as a public relations hammer.
“Let’s be clear about the goal here,” McConnell said, somewhat defensively on the Senate floor Wednesday
Reid has said he will allow Republicans one shot at offering a sequester solution this week, but the GOP has been divided about a way forward. Even if Republicans unite behind this latest approach, it is unlikely to clear the Senate, ensuring that the sequestration cuts will take effect Friday.
The internal GOP jostling comes as top Democratic senators openly acknowledge they lack the 60 votes to get their plan out of the Senate with their alternative to forestall the cuts for 10 months with alternative savings and new taxes on millionaires. With no resolution in sight by week’s end, Congress’s next best hope to adjust to the sequester’s blow falls to House and Senate appropriators, who must next replace the continuing resolution set to expire March 27.
Asked Tuesday if Democrats expected to get any GOP support to exceed the 60-vote threshold later this week, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) laughed and said bluntly: “No.”
Both parties want to avoid a government shutdown by March 27, but the same replacement bill for the expiring CR could also be used to mitigate the damage of the cuts by adjusting the underlying agency appropriations.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) is pressing her caucus to extend government funding with a more detailed package that would make it easier for agencies to cope with the lower funding levels. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) has had some early discussions with Mikulski, but so far he wants to push forward with a narrower plan that would focus most of the relief on the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs.