Senate to debate rival spending bills next week
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Democrats on Friday pushed for a vote next week on their new proposal to trim $6 billion from spending while protecting President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul and other priorities.
Democrats offered their measure as an alternative to a bill passed by the Republican-led House of Representatives last month that would cut about $61 billion in spending. Republicans immediately rejected the Democrats' offer as being woefully inadequate.
Following their big gains in the November congressional elections, Republicans have proposed steep spending cuts to narrow a budget deficit projected to hit a record $1.65 trillion this year -- equaling 10.9 percent of the economy.
Democrats have charged that the Republican cuts are too deep and would threaten an economy climbing out of recession.
Speaking to high school students in Miami, Obama said he was prepared to make cuts in "excessive spending" but drew the line at slashing investment in education.
"Even as we find ways to cut spending, what we can't do is cut back on investments like education that will help us create jobs and grow our economy. We can't sacrifice your future," Obama said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that he would seek votes next week on the competing House Republican and Senate Democratic proposals to fund the government through September.
Both are expected to fall short of the needed 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to clear procedural roadblocks, which would increase pressure on both sides to find a compromise and avert a government shutdown.
In an area of agreement with the House Republicans' spending bill, the pending legislation in the Senate would eliminate funds for developing an alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter military aircraft.
The Pentagon has been pleading with Congress to put a stop to work on the General Electric and Rolls-Royce engine, allowing the military to rely solely on United Technologies Corp's Pratt and Whitney engine.
Failure to reach an agreement by March 18, when a temporary two-week government funding bill expires, could force the government to shut down non-essential services and lay off hundreds of thousands of federal workers.
Many congressional aides already were speculating Congress would pass yet another stop-gap spending bill to avert a shutdown while negotiations on the longer bill continued.
Speaking in the Senate, Reid said of the House-passed bill: "Everyone knows it's not going to pass" in the upper chamber."
Republicans predicted the same fate for the Democratic alternative.
"If ours doesn't pass, we'll at least know where we stand," Reid said, and then be able to move forward with negotiations.
Vice President Joe Biden met with top Republican and Democratic congressional leaders on Thursday in an opening round of White House-led talks.
While the Republican plan would cut nearly every domestic function of government, from scientific research to environmental regulation, the Democratic plan mainly finds its $6 billion in savings in a handful of programs deemed redundant.
For example, it would trim $600 million from wildfire-fighting funds that remained unspent and also cut $76 million from a program to help enforce automobile seat belt laws, which Democrats said had run their course.
But Democrats would maintain money to implement Obama's landmark healthcare reform law enacted last year and funds for high priority environmental programs the administration wanted, such as tracking and regulating greenhouse gas pollution blamed for global warming.
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