August 2, 2013

Senate Republicans kill Collins-backed transportation bill

Congress heads out of Washington this week for a five-week vacation, leaving the mess to be dealt with in the fall.

By Andrew Taylor / The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans Thursday killed a $54 billion funding bill for transportation, housing and community development grants because it exceeded the punishing spending limits required under automatic budget cuts that are the product of Washington's failure to deal with its fiscal problems.

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Republican Sen. Susan Collins: "The numbers in our bill are not unrealistic."

AP / File photo

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Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and other Senate Democratic leaders, speak to reporters after Senate Republicans killed a $54 billion funding bill for transportation, housing and community development grants because it exceeded spending limits required under automatic budget cuts.

AP

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The measure fell six votes short of the 60 required to overcome a GOP filibuster and represents a setback for majority Democrats seeking to protect investments in programs like road and bridge repairs and housing vouchers for the poor.

Republicans said moving ahead on the bill would have been seen as backing away from the spending cuts promised in a deficit-cutting deal enacted two years ago that promised $2.1 trillion in deficit cuts over 10 years. The automatic cuts — which total $1.2 trillion through 2021 — are the result of Washington's failure to follow up on that deal.

"If we ... move forward, it will be widely viewed throughout the country that we are walking away from a commitment we made on a bipartisan basis, that the president signed just two years ago, that we would reduce spending by this amount of money," said Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

The Senate vote came a day after far more austere companion legislation was pulled off the House floor amid speculation by top lawmakers that GOP leaders lacked the votes to pass it.

"The numbers in the House bill were not realistic," said Republican moderate Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a key author of the bill and the only Republican to support moving ahead with it. "The numbers in our bill are not unrealistic."

At one point during the Senate proceedings, tempers flared, with Majority Leader Harry Reid telling Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who was presiding, to "have everyone sit down and shut up."

Reid's remark was aimed at colleagues who were still chatting after Collins had been recognized to speak on the highways-housing bill.

Taken together, the likely failure of both the House and Senate measures illustrates the shortcomings of the budget strategies by Republicans controlling the House and Democrats in charge of the Senate. At issue are the 12 spending bills passed each year by Congress for the day-to-day working of the government.

House GOP leaders pulled the measure from the floor after detecting opposition from both conservatives and more moderate members. Democrats were united against the bill and its steep cuts to Amtrak, transportation and housing programs, and community development grants.

"There are some folks that have a hard time voting for any appropriation bill and then there are some folks (for whom) this was probably a difficult vote ... with Amtrak and block grants and stuff," said Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, author of the transportation and housing measure. Aides to top Republicans like Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California maintained that the measure was scuttled because there wasn't enough time in the House's crowded schedule.

Without a broader House-Senate budget agreement in place, the two chambers of Congress have been trying to advance starkly different versions of the 12 annual appropriations bills, with little success in the House and virtually none in the Senate.

The Senate measures have been drafted to reflect higher budget levels originally called for in a budget deal enacted two years ago. But that deal called for automatic spending cuts known as sequestration if lawmakers could not pass follow-up deficit cuts, and the House spending bills have been drawn to those sequestration levels, which are more than $90 billion lower — a huge, unbridgeable difference in the approximately $1 trillion budget for daily agency operations.

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