By Mike Lillis - 07/30/11 11:24 PM EDT
House Democrats hammered Republicans this week for the steep domestic-spending cuts in their debt-limit package — then supported a Democratic bill that does much of the same.
All but 11 House Democrats voted Saturday in favor of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) bill to hike the debt ceiling and slash $752 billion from non-defense domestic programs over the next decade.
The Republican alternative, sponsored by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), would cut $756 billion from the same coffers over that span.
By 2021 the Reid bill would slash $118 billion from non-defense domestic programs — nearly double the $61 billion in 2011 cuts the Republicans pushed earlier this year.
Democratic leaders have been quick to demonize the Republicans for using the must-pass debt-limit bill as an opportunity to dismantle government programs historically unpopular with conservatives.
"This isn't about reducing the deficit — we can come to agreement on that," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said this week. "But we cannot come to agreement on that hardship that they want to place on the middle class by reducing what government does – clean air, clean water, food safety, education, retirement security and the rest."
The Reid bill, on the other hand, was greeted much more warmly by Democrats — despite a similar level of discretionary cuts.
Reid "has compromised, notwithstanding the fact that all of us on this side believe that the wealthiest among us should help take us out of this crisis, and [we should] not rely on the most vulnerable among us," Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, said Saturday.
Both the Boehner and Reid bills were recently shot down — the former in the Senate on Friday, and the latter in the House on Saturday. But the fact that both parties have endorsed a near-identical cap on discretionary spending is indication that a similar provision will likely be included in whatever package emerges from bipartisan talks expected throughout the weekend.
Lawmakers from both chambers have remained in Washington in an effort to increase the nation's $14.3 trillion debt limit before the Aug. 2 default deadline.
The debt-ceiling debate has turned the traditional politics of Washington on its head. Republicans, who just weeks ago had argued that that a huge deficit-reduction effort must accompany any debt-ceiling increase, are now urging a package a quarter that size.
And Democrats, who have warned for months that slashing government spending would cripple the fragile economic recovery, are now calling for more than $750 billion in discretionary cuts — a 180-degree turn from their 2009 strategy of pumping $787 billion into the economy to stimulate spending.
"It is clear we must enter an era of austerity," Pelosi said Monday, taking a page from Boehner.
Even Reid conceded that his bill would "give the Republicans everything they've asked for."
"No revenues, $2.4 trillion in cuts — that's a pretty good deal," Reid said Friday. "They, in effect, … have gotten everything they want and should put those chips in their pockets and walk away and declare victory."
Not that the discretionary cuts have gone unnoticed. On Saturday, scores of liberal House Democrats had threatened to oppose Reid's bill to protest the absence of new tax revenues and the steep domestic cuts. In the end, however, they rallied behind party leaders in order to strengthen Reid's hand as the talks progress. Only 11 defected.
For many liberals, it wasn't an easy vote.
"The cuts to discretionary spending will be adverse to the beneficiaries of programs designed to provide essential services the private sector will never — and in some cases, should never – perform," said Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who voted for the Reid bill. "[But] I do not believe America should go into default over a manufactured crisis."
Democratic leaders were quick to highlight the significant differences between the Reid and Boehner bills.
Reid's plan, for instance, would cap funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — resulting in roughly $1 trillion in deficit reduction — while the Boehner bill largely leaves those funds alone.
Reid was also careful not to touch entitlement benefits — including those under Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — viewed by Democrats as sacrosanct.
Boehner's plan, meanwhile, would empower a panel to come up with $1.8 trillion in additional deficit reduction over the next decade — savings expected to come largely from the big three entitlements.
"The cuts are more drastic, the policies are more severe," Pelosi said Thursday, blasting the GOP proposal. "They do not have that much in common except that everything in Harry Reid's bill has been something … that the Republicans have supported."
Still, some liberal Democrats are warning that their "yes" vote on the Reid bill Saturday might not hold if the next package isn't more balanced between cuts and revenues.
"I view this as a sacrifice," Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) said, decrying the discretionary cuts. "This vote today was to give the Senate the opportunity ... to commit to revenues as we go forward."