- The Washington Times - Monday, February 21, 2011

The opening bids are in.

Just hours after House Republicans passed their bill late last week to cut $61 billion from 2010 spending, or what amounts to $100 billion below President Obama’s original proposal, Senate Democrats countered with their ante — $41 billion short of Mr. Obama’s budget, or essentially a straight spending freeze at the current fiscal year’s levels.

Republicans say the fiscal situation is bad enough that deep cuts need to be made now. Democrats say cutting that deeply now could upset the economic recovery, and they argue the key is to have a longer-term plan in place.

“The $41 billion cut from the president’s request, I think, is where probably a lot of us are on this issue,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, to The Washington Times on Monday, contending that the Democratic plan tracked with the blueprint of the independent deficit commission set up by Mr. Obama last year.

“If you extended that through the rest of this year, that would frankly be consistent with the bipartisan commission’s recommendations,” the Maryland Democrat said.

Bridging the $61 billion gap between the two sides will not be easy.

Among Republicans’ cuts are billions of dollars for high-speed rail projects, which have been a priority for top Democrats; more than $1.6 billion targeted for the National Institutes of Health; and nearly $5 billion for the Education Department.

The positioning in the debate continued even as Congress began a weeklong Presidents Day break. On Monday, it was Democrats trying to outflank Republicans on the issue of border security.

In a letter to House appropriators, three Democratic senators said the reductions in homeland security spending will mean fewer Border Patrol agents on the front lines and less money to repair the border fence.

“They will render us unable to secure our borders and, even worse, will reverse the progress Congress has made in reducing the flow of illegal immigration, guns, and drugs along our border,” Sens. Charles E. Schumer of New York, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, and Jon Tester of Montana said in their letter.

Still, Democrats have been warming slowly to the idea of lower spending. First they adopted one-year spending targets that were lower than Mr. Obama’s initial proposal, and then they passed the stopgap spending bill, which is lower still — that’s where the $41 billion number comes from.

Republicans pointed out that just two months ago, Democrats were “vehemently opposed” to freezing spending at 2010 levels.

Now the GOP says, Democrats will have to go further.

“I am not going to move any kind of short-term [spending bill] at current levels,” House Speaker John A. Boehner told reporters last week.

With current funding scheduled to run out March 4, the next fight will be over yet another temporary measure to keep the government open until a final deal is brokered.

Just before the House left town last week, Democratic leaders in the chamber introduced a continuing resolution, or “CR” in Congress-speak, to extend the deadline to March 31.

“The reason we filed the extension of the CR was in contrast to Speaker Boehner’s position,” Mr. Van Hollen said. “His position has been, ‘It’s my way or the highway.’ Normally when you go to negotiations, you go without preconditions.”

Republican leaders did not react to the Democrats’ bill, which was not taken up by the chamber.

With agencies still acting under last year’s spending levels, moving the deadline to March 31 would mean the government will have operated for six full months of fiscal 2011 at 2010’s spending levels. That makes it easier to freeze spending but tougher to cut below it because many agencies have already spent out at the higher rate.

Democratic senators who embraced the $41 billion number ran into tough questions this weekend from political talk-show hosts, who argued it isn’t an actual cut when compared to actual spending last year. Instead, it marks a freeze in spending, which means it’s $41 billion lower than what was put forth by President Obama, who had proposed an increase in spending this year.

“That’s a phony cut,” “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace told Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat.

Mrs. McCaskill said she would be willing to cut deeper, but she criticized the House’s package for what she said were its misplaced priorities.

And the House Republicans’ own strategy, which also relies on cuts compared to Mr. Obama’s proposed budget, gives the Democrats’ $41 billion figure credence.

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