WASHINGTON — In a demonstration of official Washington's often curious logic, the Senate is expected to vote down both a slashing GOP budget bill and a less painful Democratic plan to demonstrate progress instead of gridlock.
The idea is to show both sides that they need to move toward each other to break a bitter stalemate over how much to cut spending as Congress wraps up last year's unfinished budget work. The combatants are facing a March 18 deadline that already has Republicans in the House drafting another stopgap spending measure to make sure the government doesn't shut down if a broader agreement isn't reached by then.
Democrats on Wednesday are poised to kill the House-passed GOP plan, saying it cuts too deeply into programs like education, college aid, housing subsidies and a food program for low-income pregnant women and their babies. Republicans and some Democratic moderates are likely to kill a White House-backed Senate plan that cuts agency operating budgets about $11 billion below last year's levels, saying that's not enough when the deficit is projected to hit $1.6 trillion this year.
Freshman Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia said the kabuki theater is a waste of time.
"Republicans will say Democrats don't go far enough. Democrats will say Republicans go too far," Manchin said Tuesday. "The truth is both are right, and both proposals will fail. Worse still, everyone in Congress knows they will fail."
Manchin's solution was to suggest roping President Barack Obama into nitty-gritty talks on the catchall spending bill — a job Obama assigned to Vice President Joe Biden.
At issue Wednesday are competing $1.2 trillion budget bills to fund the day-to-day operating budgets of every federal agency and provide a fresh $158 billion infusion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama has been particularly generous to domestic agencies in the two years he's been in office, and Republicans controlling the House have promised to try to reduce such domestic "discretionary" spending back to levels in place in 2008.
The House GOP measure, Democrats say, would cram a year's worth of cuts into just six months, greatly disrupting the operations of the government and leading to furloughs of many thousands of federal employees. The possibility of furloughs of federal workers doesn't faze most Republicans.
"The only entity in America that's not sacrificing during this economic downturn is federal government workers," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "I can't guarantee that somebody might not ... be affected. But we have largely insulated the federal government from this recession."
McConnell and his fellow Republicans say the Democratic alternative — it contains just $5 billion in fresh cuts — doesn't go nearly far enough.
"Democrats are going to have to do a lot better than this if we stand a chance of getting our nation's fiscal house in order," he said. "Frankly, it's embarrassing."