WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats on Friday detailed their opening budget offer of $6.5 billion more in spending cuts this year, but neither it nor the $61 billion in cuts passed by House Republicans is expected to survive test votes next week.
The votes will show the need for both sides to narrow the $50 billion gap between President Barack Obama's latest offer and Republican cuts that Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid called "mean-spirited."
In a fierce war of words, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said the latest Democratic proposal to meet them halfway was "nonsense."
Facing a federal deficit of $1.6 trillion, the White House and Congress have struggled to produce a long-overdue plan for the ongoing budget year. House Republican leaders are under pressure from the tea partyers in their ranks for significant spending cuts, putting them at odds with the Democrats who control the Senate.
The Democratic plan unveiled by Reid completely restores the House GOP's cuts to education, health programs and job training. It provides a modest increase to the Department of Homeland Security rather than the 2 percent cut proposed by Republicans. And it restores or softens cuts to housing subsidies and community development grants.
But it's not likely to please the Defense Department, which complained that the House measure — which is slightly more generous to the department — would leave the Pentagon without enough money to meet vital military requirements.
Reid also promised a vote on the Democratic alternative; neither it nor the House GOP plan is likely to win enough support to advance.
"Our plan recognizes that we're not in a competition to determine who can cut the most, without regard for the consequences," Reid said, adding that the House GOP plan "is based in ideology, ours is based in reality. These are decisions about real money that solve real problems that affect real lives."
McConnell, R-Ky., a participant in Thursday's talks with Vice President Joe Biden and congressional leaders, said the Democratic plan does nothing more than the status quo. It falls far short of a House-passed GOP bill slashing domestic agencies by 13 percent or more on average.
"The White House's proposal ... is to cut another $6 billion and call it a day," McConnell said.
"The status quo is indefensible and unacceptable," chimed in House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "The American people spoke loudly and clearly last November. They want to cut spending.".
In opening talks Thursday, Biden offered Republicans a package of mostly recycled budget cuts totaling $6.5 billion in response to House legislation slashing domestic agency budgets back to levels in place before Obama took office.
The White House cuts fell well short of what resurgent Republicans are demanding but were seen by Democrats as an attempt to meet Republicans in the middle.
"Democrats stand ready to meet the Republicans halfway on this," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said. "That would be fair."
The combatants are involved in a dizzying numbers game that not all of them seem able to explain clearly. Republicans say they've cut $100 billion from Obama's budget requests for the ongoing fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, but when Democrats use the same measuring stick to claim more than $40 billion — based on their agreement to freeze spending right away — GOP aides dismiss the moves as embracing the status quo.
Democrats, for their part, claim as their own $4 billion in savings from a GOP-drafted stopgap spending bill signed by Obama on Wednesday. And the additional cuts proposed on Thursday carve little new ground.
In fact, the administration's latest $6.5 billion spending cut proposal contains lots of easy targets, like cutting accounts lawmakers have heavily "earmarked" with back-home projects like clean water funding, eliminating $500 million in grants to state and local police departments and $425 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency money for state and local governments for homeland security and disaster preparedness.
The White House list also would cut $280 million for a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has canceled, $275 million cut from a program subsidizing community service jobs for low-income senior citizens and $500 million in rescissions of unneeded money from a program providing food aid to low-income pregnant women and children under the age of 5.
The talks, in Biden's private office just off the Senate floor, marked the beginning of an attempt by the White House and top lawmakers to agree on legislation to cut spending and avert a partial government shutdown when current funding authority expires on March 18.
Republicans, their ranks swelled by 87 freshmen, passed legislation in the House calling for $61 billion in cuts. The bill also contains prohibitions on proposed regulations aimed at several industries and against giving taxpayer money to Planned Parenthood, which provides contraception and health care to millions of women and girls.
Money for food inspections, college aid, grants to local schools and police and fire departments, clean water projects, job training and housing subsidies also would be reduced.