Sequestration process begins: Congress fails to reach agreement on budget fixes before deadline

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Debt increase used up

The sequesters were set into motion by the 2011 debt deal, and were meant to be too painful for anyone to accept. They were part of a package that gave Mr. Obama the power to raise the government’s debt ceiling by more than $2 trillion, in exchange for spending caps and the deeper sequester spending cuts.

That debt increase has been used up, but Congress and Mr. Obama are still fighting over whether to follow through on the spending cuts.

Lawmakers have repeatedly proposed alternatives to the sequesters, but Congress has never been able to muster enough support to pass any of them.

The House, run by Republicans, never even held votes this year, while the Senate waited until the last minute Thursday to vote on competing Democratic and Republican plans — and filibustered both of them.

The Democrats’ bill would have canceled half of the cuts and replaced them with tax hikes and lower agriculture subsidies. It was blocked when it fell eight shy of the 60 votes needed to proceed.

Republicans’ plan would have required all $85 billion in cuts to be made, but it would have turned over responsibility to Mr. Obama to decide where to cut.

“The goal here is twofold: one, to make sure the American people get the same amount of spending cuts that were promised to them in 2011, and two, to guarantee some accountability on the president’s part so that those cuts are administered in a more intelligent way,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

Mr. Obama said he was unwilling to shoulder responsibility for the cuts and threatened to veto the Republican plan, saying he would accept a bill only with tax increases included. The Republican plan fell 22 votes short of the 60 needed to move ahead.

In a sign of just how difficult it was to find agreement, 13 senators voted against both plans.

One of those was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, who had to vote against his own party’s plan as a parliamentary maneuver to be able to bring it back to the floor at a later date. The other 12 senators spanned the partisan divide — three Democrats and nine Republicans who voted against the GOP’s cuts and their own party’s tax increases.

Many of those Republicans were tea-party-style conservatives. Others were defense hawks who protested the trims to defense programs.

All three Democrats who voted against both plans are up for re-election next year.

“These bills were one-party solutions that would do nothing to solve our fiscal problems,” said Sen. Mark L. Pryor, Arkansas Democrat and one of those who opposed both alternatives, criticizing Democrats for targeting farmers and Republicans for opening the door to cuts from entitlements such as Social Security.

The Congressional Budget Office crunched the numbers and said it was likely that neither the Republican nor Democratic plan would end up cutting as much as the sequesters would anyway.

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