Senators offer their own cuts

Spending-weary Senate conservatives are offering their own, pared-back version of the House Republican Study Committee’s “Operation Offset,” just as the chamber’s GOP leaders are trying to put together a budget-reconciliation package that can muster 50 votes on the floor.

Wrangling among House Republicans has at least temporarily derailed proposed budget cuts in that chamber.

The Senate’s “Fiscal Watch Team,” including potential presidential candidates John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), outlined a short series of possible spending cuts that they hope will get the nation’s fiscal train headed back on track.

They proposed a 5-percent across-the-board cut to domestic discretionary spending, tempered by a 1-percent reserve fund for the president; delaying the Medicare prescription-drug law; repealing projects in the just-enacted highway law; creating a commission to shutter government programs like the panel that realigns and closes military bases; and freezing the annual cost-of-living adjustment for federal employees other than military personnel and law-enforcement officers.

According to the senators’ calculations, the cuts would total between $70 billion and $125 billion. The fiscal 2005 deficit was expected to exceed $300 billion.

“For the sake of our children and grandchildren, Congress needs to make some difficult decisions regarding deficit spending today, McCain said. “We want to help our fellow citizens on the Gulf Coast, but let us do it responsibly.”

But centrist senators are unlikely to go along with most of the proposals, particularly the 5-percent domestic discretionary spending cut.

“I’m very leery of across-the-board cuts,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a key swing vote on budget matters. “I don’t think we were sent here to do a meat-ax approach. … Not all programs are of equal value.”

Most, if not all, of the proposed cuts have been offered before by conservatives, but they hope the political climate will help their cause this time around.

“You have a moment of very strong political pressure across the country,” Brownback said.

McCain and Brownback were joined at a press conference by Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), John Ensign (R-Nev.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and John Sununu (R-N.H.). Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is a member of the group but did not participate in the press conference.

The GOP senators provided a stark juxtaposition to a press event Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) held with survivors of Hurricane Katrina, who asked for more help from the federal government — including expanding healthcare programs, awarding contracts to local workers and restoring prevailing-wage standards that were suspended for the recovery effort.

Reid called Republican budget priorities “immoral.”

“For all the billions we’ve spent in Iraq, no one looked for offsets for that,” he said.

The uproar from Senate conservatives comes as Republican leaders in the upper chamber are trying to walk the thinnest of tightropes to prepare a reconciliation package.

The Finance Committee was expected to clear a major hurdle yesterday by approving a package that would net just more than $10 billion in savings, mostly from Medicaid and Medicare. Conservatives grumbled that Chairman Chuck Grassley’s (R-Iowa) mark did not go far enough.

“It’s the usual situation of supporting something because there is much good in it,” said Finance Committee member Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).

But to win the votes of centrists, Grassley had to design a measure that would not result in direct hits to Medicare and Medicaid — and one that included both spending cuts and spending increases.

Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) said yesterday that he would have difficulty backing a spending reconciliation package if it is rewritten to target cuts to beneficiaries.

The larger reconciliation package, including savings from several Senate committees, is expected to exceed its original target of $34.7 billion in cuts over five years when it is brought to the floor, according to Republican leadership aides.

Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), who voted against the original budget resolution in April, said he is likely to vote against the reconciliation package because of its planned cuts to healthcare programs and the opening up of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling — though he said he has not made up his mind.

Republican leaders in the House and Senate hope to enact the first cuts to mandatory spending programs under the filibuster-proof reconciliation process since 1997. Senate authorizing committees have identified $71 billion in cuts to programs under their jurisdiction, according to G. William Hoagland, the top budget aide to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

Though a net savings of $39 billion over five years is more than the original target, committees have had to include spending items to secure votes. Efforts to alter the carefully negotiated package, which is slated for floor consideration next week, could threaten its passage.