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Senate rejects both parties’ budget plans

Pair of votes set up to push for compromise

By Mark Arsenault and Theo Emery
Globe Staff / March 10, 2011

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WASHINGTON — The Senate rejected a Republican-backed House budget with its deep spending cuts yesterday as well as a Democratic alternative with milder reductions amid warnings that a compromise may elude America’s leaders, despite their repeated pledges to work together.

The defeat of both bills was orchestrated by Senate leaders, who sought to illustrate the gulf between the parties’ ideologies over government priorities and deficit reduction. Now the battle over how much to cut and what to target shifts to behind-the-scenes negotiations.

The federal government has been operating on a series of stopgap budgets. If negotiations do not reach a compromise quickly, Congress must adopt another temporary patch to prevent government from shutting down after March 18.

“It seems we’re heading toward a shutdown,’’ said Stuart Kasdin, professor of public policy at George Washington University who was a manager at the Office of Management and Budget during the government shutdowns of the mid-1990s.

The large class of 87 freshman House Republicans, many of whom were empowered by the conservative Tea Party movement, find “it’s morally corrupt to compromise’’ on a core item such as spending cuts, he said.

That fundamental approach has hardened the rhetoric of Republicans and could shackle their negotiators. Democrats, too, have been put on notice that any compromise leading to more cuts would hurt the most vulnerable people in their districts and cost them at the ballot box. If the standoff is not resolved, a government shutdown would spawn unpredictable political consequences, according to specialists.

The two parties are already deflecting blame.

“If Republicans want to shut down the government because of their unreasonableness, I’ll take that debate to the American people,’’ said Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts.

Senators from both parties called this week for the president to become more involved.

“We need leadership,’’ said Senator Scott Brown, a Massachusetts Republican. “The president needs to be engaged in these things; he needs to sit down at the table and come up with a compromise that shows true, real leadership in tackling these budget proposals.’’

Senate majority leader Harry Reid told reporters he speaks daily with the White House on the status of the budget. Vice President Joe Biden has been involved in some negotiations with congressional leaders.

Neither spending plan came close to the 60 Senate votes needed to move forward yesterday, but congressional leaders hope the exercise will spur negotiations. For moderates on both sides of the aisle, they were painful votes.

Brown voted for the House Republican plan, though he says he opposes many of the cuts. “I would have had different priorities,’’ Brown said. He said he hopes the votes will move Congress toward “a realistic and pragmatic compromise package that will contain smarter and more judicious spending reductions.’’

Left-leaning groups immediately pounced: Within an hour after the vote, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee issued a statement blasting Brown for supporting a plan that it said would have kicked 2,900 Massachusetts children out of the early-learning program Head Start, slashed millions in federal block grants to Bay State cities and towns, and cut college grants to thousands of students.

The Republican plan fell with 44 in favor and 56 against. The Democratic alternative went down with 42 in favor and 58 against. Ten Senate Democrats, mostly centrists, crossed the aisle to oppose their party’s plan. Those Democrats, along with several Republican moderates, including Brown, could become the dealmakers in a compromise that bridges the two proposals, some analysts suggest.

House Republicans called for $57 billion more in cuts from domestic spending; Democrats sought about $5 billion. The gap in numbers, however, is only one part of what negotiators must overcome. Diverging philosophies on the role of government and the fact that the spending fight covers only a tiny slice of the overall budget complicate the discussions.

Republicans say the voters in November delivered a mandate to slash spending. “They did not get the message,’’ Senator John Cornyn of Texas, a Republican, said this week about Democrats. “They’re listening to their party leadership here in Washington and not listening to their own constituents.’’

Democrats say it is the GOP that is misreading the election. “These elections were all about jobs,’’ said Senator Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat. “Our first mission is job growth, our second mission is deficit reduction — medium- and long-term deficit reduction, not cutting so that there are more teachers and police officers and firefighters and mental health counselors and librarians laid off.’’

The fight is over a budget to cover the rest of the fiscal year, to Sept. 30. House leaders are drawing up another short-term plan in case negotiations fail.

House Republicans will insist on at least $4 billion more in cuts if there is a two-week extension, said Representative Frank Guinta, a freshman Republican from New Hampshire.

The Senate’s inability to agree on a plan “is making a shutdown more of a reality,’’ he said.

After the current dispute, still to come is a larger battle over next year’s budget, and an upcoming vote to raise the amount the US government is legally allowed to borrow.

Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com. Theo Emery can be reached at temeryy@glob.com