- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Working in tandem with the White House to boost spending far beyond sequestration limits, Senate Democrats called on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell Tuesday to begin bipartisan budget talks immediately, restore program cuts and prevent a “manufactured crisis.”

As the fiscal year deadline of Oct. 1 approaches, Democrats urged Mr. McConnell, Kentucky Republican, to begin negotiations before lawmakers return from their month-long August recess in early September.

“We are deeply concerned by the fact that negotiations to craft a bipartisan budget agreement have not yet begun,” the Democrats wrote in a letter. “We cannot afford to wait, only to let delay and inaction bring us to the brink of another totally predictable and completely preventable crisis.”

The letter was signed by all 46 Senate Democrats and independents, including presidential candidate Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who votes with Democrats on most issues.

President Obama has issued multiple veto threats against GOP spending bills for fiscal 2016, demanding that lawmakers raise spending beyond previous “sequestration” levels that were agreed to by the administration and Republicans in the Budget Control Act of 2012. Mr. McConnell, Kentucky Republican, has said he does not envision a government shutdown this fall, even as conservatives push to defund Planned Parenthood.

It’s a familiar duel between Mr. Obama and congressional Republicans at the budget deadline, an annual clash that budget analysts say the president has mostly won in recent years.

“The White House has often been on the ‘take’ end in the budgetary give-and-take with Congress, though the scoreboard is certainly not a shutout against Congress,” said Pete Sepp, president of the National Taxpayers Union. He said the Ryan-Murray budget accord of 2013, driven in part by Mr. Obama’s veto threats, “left taxpayers on the shorter end of the stick” by easing budget caps and introducing “new gimmicks.”

But Mr. Sepp said the Budget Control Act of 2011, which paved the way for sequestration caps, “was a major victory for fiscal restraint in at least part of the budget, and belongs in the win column for Congress.”

Senate Republicans have so far resisted Democratic appeals to bargain this year, saying that Democrats blocked attempts earlier this year to move forward with spending bills.

Mr. McConnell’s forecast of no government shutdown is due in part to the consideration that many Republican lawmakers also want to exceed sequestration budget limits, especially on defense spending. He’s also expressed concern that budget showdowns over Planned Parenthood funding tend to divert attention from the issue — in this case, the alleged sale of fetal tissue for research — to the government shutdown itself.

The White House, which has been issuing veto threats against nearly every GOP spending bill this year, said this week that the lower level of Republicans’ education appropriations would hurt preschool programs nationwide. Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan said the GOP’s spending plan would “shortchange our economy and our national security” and reduce discretionary funding to its lowest level in a decade, when adjusted for inflation.

“The debate is not abstract, it’s about our nation’s future,” Mr. Donovan told reporters.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said cutting preschool programs would threaten the administration’s plan to expand the service to 150,000 more children across the country.

Mr. Obama’s proposed $4 trillion budget for fiscal 2016 would blow through the sequestration caps and raise spending by about 6.4 percent over the current federal budget. The Republican-controlled House and Senate have approved a $3.87 trillion budget that would balance federal spending over the next decade and cut $5 trillion in social, education and health care programs.

Under the 2011 sequestration agreement, the president raised more than $2 trillion worth of debt immediately in exchange for promises of spending cuts or tax increases over the ensuing decade totaling the same amount. But a special committee was unable to agree on the next step, resulting in automatic, across-the-board cuts to defense and basic discretionary spending.

Republicans say the defense cuts are too deep, and they plan to add tens of billions of dollars to an emergency war-spending account, which allows them to get around the sequester caps. Mr. Obama, however, wants domestic spending to be increased by the same amount.

Senate Democrats said Mr. McConnell should schedule negotiations to begin before lawmakers return from their summer recess after Labor Day. And they made clear that spending increases should be part of the solution.

“Inaction and failure to responsibly restore sequester-level cuts in FY16 appropriations bills will have real consequences for our country,” they wrote. “That is why we are eager to start working as soon as possible to negotiate a compromise that will keep our nation and economy strong, and keep the government open.”

Congress won’t return to work until after Labor Day, leaving just a few legislative days to agree on a spending plan for the government beyond the end of the fiscal year. It’s a familiar duel at the annual budget deadline, as Republicans and Mr. Obama increasingly disagree on spending levels.

The office of Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, released a list Tuesday of steps the GOP has taken in recent years “to stop Washington’s spending binge.” They include reducing discretionary spending by $176 billion since fiscal 2010, approving a budget that would balance over 10 years, and cutting the cost of House operations.

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