Two days before $85 billion in automatic spending cuts hit the government, Senate Republicans are divided over a bill backed by their leadership that would replace the sequester.
The measure would require that $85 billion in spending be cut, but give President Obama more flexibility in manage the spending reductions than given by the sequester, which requires across-the-board cuts to nearly every part of every agency.
Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the plan doesn't address the damage that the sequester cuts would inflict on the military.
“I don’t care how flexible you want to be, the top-line numbers don’t add up to me on defense. That’s my problem," Graham said after a contentious GOP meeting where the plan was discussed.
Coming up with a favored approach is important as both sides try to win public support over how they are handling the sequester.
The Senate is expected to vote this week on rival legislative measures backed by Democrats and Republicans. While both bills are expected to fail, they could help give each party political cover.
Leaders on both sides will be looking at the vote count carefully, raising the stakes for Republicans to rally their members around one alternative.
So far, Senate Democrats look like the more unified side.
Most if not all Democrats are expected to support their conference’s $110 billion sequester replacement bill that would phase in a new minimum tax on those making more than $1 million a year, close corporate tax loopholes, end direct farm payments and delay defense cuts.
Such unity isn’t evident around the likely GOP alternative offered by Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and supported by GOP leaders. The bill, which would give Obama more leeway in carrying out sequestration, was discussed Tuesday in the Senate Republican conference meeting.
In general, Republicans more comfortable with defense cuts supported this effort, while hawks like McCain and Graham were skeptical.
Opponents complain the plan would cede Congress's power of the purse to the president. Others say it does nothing to address the sequester’s damaging cuts to defense and national security.
"I've never seen so much passion about something that is not going to pass," Corker said Tuesday after the party’s weekly lunch.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) acknowledged Tuesday that the party might have to offer more than one sequester alternative amendment on the Senate floor, if Democrats consent to multiple votes.
"Speaking for myself, I would be happy to give the president more flexibility and rely on the agency heads to portion the spending reductions in different ways," McConnell said. "There are some members of our conference who are suspicious that the administration would take advantage of such flexibility to punish their political enemies."
"We'll see how many votes we'll have. That's up for discussion," McConnell said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday he would only allow one GOP bill. He has set the Senate up for Thursday votes.
The plan from Toomey and Corker would give the Obama administration more power to choose which federal programs and activities will be slashed to meet the $85 billion target.
The flexibility would apply equally to domestic and defense spending, Corker said, in contrast to an earlier proposal floated by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) that would have just given flexibility over Pentagon cuts.
Graham said that he would support a deficit grand bargain that raises $600 billion in revenues in exchange for massive entitlement reform. Such a bargain would presumably restore all nine years of defense cuts on the horizon.
The GOP conference is also weighing a proposal from Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) to replace the sequester cuts with a reduction in the overall federal workforce through attrition. McCain and Graham support the Ayotte approach.
Toomey said his proposal preserves the magnitude of the sequester cuts because the nation's budget situation demands it.
He said “given the disastrous fiscal situation we are in, we’ve got to support these cuts.”
The Pennsylvania senator said that the proposal could be redesigned to include a provision giving Congress a final vote to disapprove a presidential sequester plan.
He argued that after Oct. 1, the remaining eight years of automatic spending cuts are accomplished through lower budget caps, not the seizing of funds known as sequestration, so congressional power isn't ceded for long.
Corker concurred, arguing the plan "is the best solution for the next seven months. After that it moves to the appropriations process."
Once the sequester takes effect, supporters of the idea said, the flexibility bill could gain traction and could be difficult for Obama to reject.
Democrats showed no signs of supporting any of the GOP ideas.
Sen. Carl Levin (Mich.), the Democratic chairman of the Armed Services Committee, blasted the GOP approach as passing the buck to the White House.
“I think it’s a mistake in general to give the power of the purse to the president and say, ‘Here’s a pot of money; spend it as you wish,' ” Levin said. “That kind of, what’s called ‘flexibility,’ is really an abdication of what the responsibilities of the Congress are.”
Corker said that at this stage, the GOP proposal and a separate Democratic sequester replacement bill that raises taxes will fail in Senate votes this week.
“I can’t imagine either bill is going to pass,” he said. “That’s why I’m booking a flight to head out of town Thursday night.”
This story was posted on Feb. 26 at 4:46 p.m. and has been updated.