As Government Shutdown Looms, Senate Shoots Down Dueling Spending Proposals

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With only a little over a week to go before the government could shut down, the Senate today shot down dueling spending proposals from each party.

The votes were merely symbolic since the two sides are $50 billion apart in proposed cuts.

Democrats denounced the Republican bill to make $57 billion in cuts as "reckless," "extreme," and "one of the worst pieces of legislation ever drafted in the history of this Congress," arguing that it would slash hundreds of thousands of jobs and stall the country's ongoing economic recovery.

The House-passed GOP bill was defeated in the Senate by a vote of 44-56. The vote was strictly along party lines -- Democrats against, Republicans in favor -- except for three Tea Party Republicans: Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Republicans countered that the Democrats' plan to make $4.7 billion in cuts is "unacceptable," "indefensible," and showing that they are "in denial" about the nation's soaring deficits, especially in the wake of a report this week that the government last month racked up an all-time record deficit of $223 billion.

That bill was also defeated, 42-58. Eleven Democrats broke with their party to oppose the measure: Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Bill Nelson of Florida, Mark Udall of Colorado, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Jim Webb of Virginia, Carl Levin of Michigan, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Kay Hagan of North Carolina.

Both bills were attempts to fund the remaining six months of the current fiscal year.

Ultimately today's votes in the Senate were exercises in futility, since neither Democrats, with their 53-seat majority, nor Republicans, with their 47-seat minority, had nearly enough votes to reach the chamber's 60-vote threshold. But that was sort of the point -- now that the votes are over, the bipartisan negotiations involving Congressional leaders and representatives from the Obama administration are expected to resume.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., today said the debate should "reset" after the votes. He said both sides need to negotiate with "fresh eyes and a new mindset." Schumer said he believes lawmakers should include mandatory spending cuts and tax code reforms as part of any final compromise.

"The next offer and counter offer should include mandatory cuts and revenue raisers like oil royalties into the mix," Schumer said on the Senate floor. "We will only put a dent into the deficit with shared sacrifice."

"The blame for the current breakdown in budget negotiations rests with our failure to think big," he added. "A bipartisan compromise will not be found in discretionary spending cuts alone. We must broaden the playing field."

In turn, the Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell, argued that if Democrats cannot manage to cut more than a day's worth of red ink over the next six months, then that does not bode well for lawmakers figuring out a way to agree on a 2012 budget or reach a deal to reduce the country's $14 trillion debt.

"This week's debate is just a dress rehearsal for the big stuff - and so far Democrats are showing they're just not up to it," McConnell said. "They either lack the stomach or the courage, and the President, as members of his own party point out, is nowhere to be found on the issue."

That was the criticism leveled at President Obama Tuesday by West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, who is up for re-election next year. Manchin said the president has "failed to lead this debate."

With government funding set to run out in a week and a half, time is now of the essence. If lawmakers cannot reach a long-term funding deal for the remainder of the fiscal year, or a short-term measure to buy themselves more time, then on March 19 the government would shut down for the first time in 15 years.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday he was opposed to more short-term bills -- known as continuing resolutions -- that only kick the can down the road for a few more weeks.

"We have to get the long-term done. Long-term is becoming short-term," he said. "We're down to about six months now. So I would hope that we can move forward on a long-term solution to the country's problems as it relates to this short-term budget problem."

But as evidenced by the fact that lawmakers have spent the past three days arguing over votes that were nothing more than symbolic, bridging a $52 billion difference in proposed cuts could be one tall order.