Senate Dems escalate spending fight

Senate Democrats on the Appropriations Committee on Thursday adopted a blueprint for 12 annual 2014 spending bills that escalates a budget showdown with the House.

The Senate spending plan, which passed in a rare 15-14 partisan vote in the normally congenial committee, raises the possibility of a government shutdown on Oct. 1 and another round of automatic sequester cuts after Congress adjourns at the end of the year.

The plan, authored by Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), uses a $1.058 trillion topline spending level compared to a $967 billion level being used in the House. 

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"This senator rejects that the sequester is the new normal ... there is time to cancel the sequester for 2014," Mikulski said. 

Huge differences exist between the House and Senate plans that will be difficult to resolve. For example, the Senate's approved spending for the Departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services is a whopping $42 billion more than the House's spending level.

Mikulski said she plans to complete draft bills by August. 

At the markup, ranking member Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) offered an amendment to use the $967 billion number, albeit without a breakdown for each of the 12 bills. He argued the Mikulski top-line number "ignores the law and puts us on the path to another sequester.” 

Shelby's amendment was defeated in a 15-14 vote.

Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) argued that the House spending plan also ignores the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), because it increases defense spending by $54 billion over the ceiling set in the law. The House deepens social spending cuts to make up for the added defense spending.

“They will tell you they are adhering to the BCA but they are actually doing the opposite,” she said. 

Murray made clear that Senate Democrats intend to block any sequester relief for the Defense Department unless the House comes to the bargaining table to reverse the social program cuts. 

“I want you to know they will not be able to protect the Pentagon without an agreement,” she said

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The Appropriations Committee approved two of the 12 spending bills it is considering. 

The votes on the substance of the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs bill and on the Agriculture spending bill split committee Republicans.

Six Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), voted against the bills because of their opposition to the Mikulski topline number. 

Sens. Mike Johanns (Neb.), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Dan Coats (Ind.) and Shelby also voted "no."

Coats cast his vote as a call for a deficit grand bargain on entitlements, which he said should be used to turn off the sequester.

Democrats countered that they have been seeking a budget conference committee with the House but the Senate GOP has blocked that.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of the Senate GOP leadership, said such a conference would likely fail and the $967 billion number will prevail.

"We are better off recognizing that now," he said, arguing 12 detailed bills are better than relying on a mindless sequester.