GOP flexes muscle on 2011 spending bills

Senate Democratic leaders are acceding to demands from Republicans and centrists to lower spending levels in 2011.

It’s all but a given that the Senate will adopt a spending cap for next year first proposed by Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). The Sessions-McCaskill plan would limit spending in the 12 appropriations bills for 2011 to $1.108 trillion, $20 billion less than President Obama had requested.

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Democrats had sought a compromise that would have set spending levels $14 billion below the White House’s request. But with all 41 Republicans in the Senate saying they won’t back any bills that aren’t in line with the lower spending level, Democrats have acknowledged they can’t move forward on their preferred cap.

Reid said last week on the Senate floor that he’s in “general agreement” with Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) on the notion that the spending bills will wind up at the Sessions-McCaskill level.

A Senate leadership aide cautioned Tuesday that there’s no final agreement on spending for next year, but admitted the lower level “may be a reality.”

The aide noted McConnell has insisted on the lower level, nixing a compromise on spending that Sen. Thad Cochran (Miss.), the top GOP appropriator, expressed support for during an Appropriations markup last month.

“[McConnell] has basically said there would not be 60 votes for anything over the McCaskill-Sessions level,” the aide said.

Should Democrats agree to the lower levels, they’d be likely to get some GOP support for the 12 regular appropriations bills for 2011.

“If there were a plan to achieve the [2011 Sessions-McCaskill number], you’d probably see Republican appropriators supporting the bills in committee, and even as the bills are moving forward,” a GOP source on the Appropriations Committee said.

The House has called for 2011 spending levels that are just $7 billion below Obama’s request.

GOP appropriators, however, aren’t insisting on the full Sessions-McCaskill plan, which calls for a freeze on discretionary spending levels through 2014, the source said.

The agreement to limit spending reflects the new political reality, one in which lawmakers want to do more to limit the growth of the $13 trillion debt. Other priorities of Democratic leaders and the Obama administration —a $26.1 billion jobs bill with fiscal aid for states and a small-business bill with a $30 billion credit fund — have stalled this week in the Senate largely because of their price tags.

With the deficit on everyone’s minds, members of both parties are trying to claim some credit for reducing spending.

“Obviously the fact that they have 59 members, if it’s done, it will be done on a bipartisan basis,” McConnell told The Hill on Monday. “But we forced it”

McCaskill, who has pressed other Democrats to do more to curtail deficits, told The Hill that her proposal is a “real bipartisan effort,” noting that several Democrats voted for her plan when it came up for votes earlier this year.

In June, 17 Democrats and one Independent joined all 41 Republicans in voting for an amendment that would have attached McCaskill and Sessions’s full, three-year proposal to a jobs bill. The amendment fell one vote short of the necessary 60.

Republicans and McCaskill are still pushing the Senate to adopt the three-year proposal. GOP leaders are trying to attach it as an amendment to the small-business bill Senate leaders want to vote on this week, but Reid has opposed holding another vote on it since it has already failed several times.