WASHINGTON, March 8, 2011 -- The spending fight will take center stage this week on Capitol Hill, with two votes in the Senate today and more negotiations expected between Congressional leaders and the White House later in the week.
Lawmakers are trying to reach a deal to keep the government running for the remaining seven months of the current fiscal year before the latest stop-gap funding bill expires at the end of March 18.
The GOP-controlled House has already passed a bill that includes $61 billion in cuts. Senate Democrats have denounced that bill as "one of the worst pieces of legislation ever drafted" and unveiled a measure of their own that cuts around $50 billion less.
The Democrats' plan undoes the GOP's cuts to education, health, and job training programs and it reduces cuts to housing subsidies and community grants.
The Senate is planning to vote on both parties' proposals today, but the votes appear to be more symbolic than productive: both measures will be defeated, since 60 votes are needed in the upper chamber of Congress and neither Democrats -- with their 53-seat majority -- nor Republicans -- with their 47-seat minority -- will be able to reach that threshold.
"Everyone knows how these votes will turn out -- it's likely neither proposal will pass," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid acknowledged Monday.
But he added, "These votes will show us who wants an easy applause line and who wants to strengthen our country's bottom line.
"Their shiny new budget is a lemon. It has a badly broken engine," he said of the Republicans' proposal.
Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, responded by arguing that a vote for the Democrats' plan is "a vote that says we are still in denial, a vote that says deficits don't matter, that we can continue to spend."
"What planet are they on?" he said. "Our character is tested by how we respond in times of great challenge. This week, the Senate faces such a test. How do we respond to the growing fiscal crisis facing our nation that every expert, including the debt commission, has told us is real? This is a defining vote in the career of every senator and a defining vote for the Senate. "
If there is going to be any resolution, it is more like ly to come from the negotiations between Congressional leaders being led by Vice President Biden than from the votes today.
Those talks started last Thursday with the White House unveiling $6.5 billion more in cuts than it had previously offered, but that was quickly shot down by the GOP as "unacceptable" and "indefensible."
That brought the Democrats' total proposed cuts to around $10.5 billion, a level that the Senate's number-two Democrat indicated was about as high as his party was willing to go.
"I can tell you personally I'm willing to see more deficit reduction, but not out of domestic discretionary spending," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told "Fox News Sunday."
"I think we've pushed this to the limit," he added.
Closed-door negotiations involving Congressional leaders and the White House are not expected to resume until after the Senate's two votes on Tuesday.
If Democrats are indeed drawing a line in the sand at $10.5 billion in discretionary spending cuts, that means any additional cuts would have to come from other areas, such as defense spending or entitlements such as Social Security.
The Senate's top Republican Mitch McConnell said now is "the perfect time" to tackle entitlement reform, but without President Obama's help, he warned, nothing will happen.
"We're prepared to do difficult things, but he must be a part of it, because we're not looking at making an issue here -- we're looking at making a law. And that requires the signature of the President of the United States," McConnell said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation."
But McConnell said he doesn't believe Obama is serious about resolving the problem.
"I have now had a number of private conversations with the president and the vice president," he said. "I was hopeful that we would step up to the plate here, if you will, and use this divided government opportunity to do something big about our long-term problems.
"What I don't see now is any willingness to do anything that's difficult," he said. "Look, this is the perfect time to do it. We control part of the government. They control part of the government. It could be done in a very, very effective way. ... I haven't given up hope but frankly I'm not optimistic."
If lawmakers cannot reach a long-term spending agreement or pass another short-term funding measure, then the government would shut down for the first time in 15 years.
With the parties still $50 billion apart in proposed cuts -- and senators set to spend the first half of this week merely taking political show votes -- there is a long road ahead before any agreement is reached.
As Durbin told reporters last week, it will take "a super-human effort" from both sides for that to happen.