WASHINGTON (AP) - Senate Republicans last week killed a $54 billion funding bill for transportation, housing and community development grants because it exceeded the punishing spending limits required under automatic budget cuts that are the product of Washington’s failure to deal with its fiscal problems.
The measure fell six votes short of the 60 required to overcome a GOP filibuster and represents a setback for majority Democrats seeking to protect investments in programs like road and bridge repairs and housing vouchers for the poor.
Republicans said moving ahead on the bill would have been seen as backing away from the spending cuts promised in a deficit-cutting deal enacted two years ago that promised $2.1 trillion in deficit cuts over 10 years. The automatic cuts — which total $1.2 trillion through 2021 — are the result of Washington’s failure to follow up on that deal.
"If we ... move forward, it will be widely viewed throughout the country that we are walking away from a commitment we made on a bipartisan basis, that the president signed just two years ago, that we would reduce spending by this amount of money," said Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
The demise of the measure leaves Congress at the drawing board when it comes to the budget as it prepares to exit Washington for a five-week vacation. The new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1 and it’ll take a stopgap funding bill to prevent a government shutdown.
The Senate vote came a day after far more austere companion legislation was pulled off the House floor amid speculation by top lawmakers that GOP leaders lacked the votes to pass it.
"The numbers in the House bill were not realistic," said GOP moderate Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a key author of the bill and the only Republican to support moving ahead with it. "The numbers in our bill are not unrealistic."
Taken together, the likely failure of both the House and Senate measures illustrates the shortcomings of the budget strategies by Republicans controlling the House and Democrats in charge of the Senate. At issue are the 12 spending bills passed each year by Congress for the day-to-day working of the government.
Democrats chose the transportation measure as their first attempt to pass an appropriations bill because of its funding for popular programs like road and bridge projects and community development block grants that boost local economies.
"We had a bill that would have put people to work, fixed bridges and highways, improved public safety," said a disappointed but feisty Barbara Mikulski, D-Md, the chair of Appropriations. "It would have gotten America moving. It would have gotten America working."
Without a broader House-Senate budget agreement in place, the two chambers of Congress have been trying to advance starkly different versions of the 12 annual appropriations bills, with little success in the House and virtually none in the Senate.
The Senate measures have been drafted to reflect higher budget levels originally called for in a budget deal enacted two years ago. But that deal called for automatic spending cuts known as sequestration if lawmakers could not pass follow-up deficit cuts, and the House spending bills have been drawn to those sequestration levels, which are more than $90 billion lower — a huge, unbridgeable difference in the approximately $1 trillion budget for daily agency operations.
Congress heads out of Washington this week for a five-week vacation, leaving the mess to be dealt with in the fall. GOP leaders had sought to set up a budget showdown this summer with the need to pass legislation increasing the government’s $16.7 trillion borrowing cap. But the government’s better-than-expected fiscal performance has delayed that showdown into the fall.
President Barack Obama says he won’t negotiate over the debt limit like he did two years ago, a promise he repeated to his House and Senate allies in closed-door meetings on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
The situation on the House and Senate transportation measures reflects broader dysfunction in Washington over the budget. All sides want to reverse the crippling sequestration cuts, but a partisan impasse over tax increases sought by Obama and his Democratic allies and cuts to so-called mandatory programs like Medicare and food stamps demanded by Republicans shows no signs of breaking.
Cuts in the House transportation measure were made deeper by a Republican move to cut an additional $40 billion-plus from domestic programs and transfer the money to the Pentagon. That left the transportation measure $10 billion, or about 18 percent, below the Senate’s bill.
Rogers, who typically is cautious in his public statements, issued an unusually harsh blast, saying halting debate on the House measure reflected a failure of Republicans to follow up on their promises to cut spending with binding legislation.
"With this action, the House has declined to proceed on the implementation of the very budget it adopted just three months ago," Rogers said. He said the failed transportation and housing measure was the first major attempt by Republicans to pass an appropriations bill at levels consistent with the sequestration cuts and said the failure of the bill meant it was time for a new approach.
The White House said the failure of the House transportation bill laid bare the shortcomings of the GOP budget strategy.
"What we learned yesterday is substantively, people cannot accept the depth of these cuts," White House budget director Sylvia Burwell told reporters Thursday at a breakfast sponsored by the Wall St. Journal. "That level isn’t a workable level."
"The House, Senate and White House must come together as soon as possible on a comprehensive compromise that repeals sequestration, takes the nation off this lurching path from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis, reduces our deficits and debt, and provides a realistic topline discretionary spending level to fund the government in a responsible — and attainable — way," Rogers said.
On that, at least, there was agreement.
"The collapse of the partisan transportation and housing bill in the House proves that their sequestration-on-steroids bills are unworkable, and that we are going to need a bipartisan deal to replace sequestration," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chief author of the Senate bill.