Cuts imminent, Senate rejects stopgap efforts

WASHINGTON (AP) — Squabbling away the hours,

the Senate swatted aside last-ditch plans to block $85 billion in

broad-based

federal spending reductions Thursday as President Barack Obama and

Republicans blamed each other for the latest outbreak of

gridlock and the administration readied plans to put the cuts into

effect.

So entrenched were the two parties that the Senate chaplain, Barry Black, opened the day's session with a prayer that beseeched

a higher power to intervene.

"Rise up, O God, and save us from ourselves," he said of cuts due to take effect sometime on Friday.

The immediate impact of the reductions on the public was uncertain, and the administration pulled back on its earlier warnings

of long lines developing quickly at airports and teacher layoffs affecting classrooms.

On the Senate floor, a Republican proposal requiring Obama to propose alternative cuts that would cause less disruption in

essential government services fell to overwhelming Democratic opposition, 62-38.

Moments later, a Democratic alternative to

spread the cuts over a decade and replace half with higher taxes on

millionaires

and corporations won a bare majority, 51-49, but that was well shy

of the 60 needed to advance. Republicans opposed it without

exception.

In a written statement after the votes, Obama lambasted Republicans. "They voted to let the entire burden of deficit reduction

fall squarely on the middle class," he said.

He noted that he would meet with congressional leaders from both parties at the White House on Friday, but no one is expecting

action before the cuts begin taking effect. Obama said, 'We can build on the over $2.5 trillion in deficit reduction we've

already achieved, but doing so will require Republicans to compromise. That's how our democracy works, and that's what the

American people deserve."

Said House Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Congress: "Obama and Senate Democrats are demanding more tax hikes

to fuel more 'stimulus' spending."

Though furloughs are a fear for some,

especially certain federal workers, there is little sign of business

worry, let alone

panic in the nation. Stocks declined slightly for the day after

trading near record highs. And unlike the "fiscal cliff" showdown

of two months ago, there are no deadlines for action to prevent

tax increases from hitting nearly every American.

Still, there was talk of crisis.

"We have the opportunity to avoid the kind of calamity and disaster that is being threatened and is completely unnecessary,"

said Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who co-authored the Republican proposal.

"The question is, are we going to achieve these savings through badly designed spending cuts that make no attempt whatever

to distinguish between more sensible government spending and less sensible spending?"

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington said that was precisely what Democrats had tried to do by proposing the deferral of Pentagon

cuts until U.S. combat troops have come home from Afghanistan in two years' time.

At the same time, she said the Democrats had reasonably proposed replacing half of the pending cuts with higher taxes on "the

wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations."

In fact, the Democratic measure also included small increases for a variety of small programs such as biodiesel education,

assistance for biomass crops and certification of organic foods.

Boehner and House Republicans show no hurry

to alter the cuts, contending they provide leverage with Obama in their

demand

for savings from government benefit programs. Yet they are

expected to launch legislation next week to replenish government

coffers after current funding expires on March 27, and that

measure could become a magnet for new attempts to change Friday's

"sequester."

Already, some Republicans held out hope the current struggle might lead to talks on completing work on the final piece of

a deficit reduction package that has been more than two agonizing years in the making.

"The objective here ought to be not just to

deal with sequester but to deal with the underlying spending problems,

which require

tax reform" as well as reform of benefit programs like Medicare,

Medicaid and Social Security," said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

Democratic senators emerged from a lunch with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and top Pentagon officials and said the

current cuts could not be allowed to stand.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said the session had confirmed to him that as currently constituted, the cuts were 'a really,

really dumb idea."

In a cycle of crisis followed by compromise over the past two years, Obama and congressional Republicans have agreed to more

than $3.6 trillion in long-term deficit savings over a decade.

None of the savings to date has come from the big benefit programs that lawmakers in both parties say must be tackled if the

country is to gain control over its finances. Each party fears the political fallout of confronting them on their own, but

Democrats, in particular, are reluctant to scale back programs that they count as their political birthright.

Their rival speeches on the Senate floor weren't the first time that Toomey and Murray disagreed on economic issues.

Both served on a so-called congressional Supercommittee in 2011 that was charged with producing at least $1.2 trillion in

savings over a decade.

The panel deadlocked, automatically triggering the across-the-board cuts that now are imminent.

As constituted, the cuts would total $85

billion through the end of the current budget year — Sept. 30 — half

each from defense

and non-defense programs. Large parts of the budget are

off-limits, including programs for veterans, Social Security and

Medicare

benefits.

The Republican alternative would have required Obama to propose an alternative that relied exclusively on spending cuts, ruled

out tax increases and limited what he could take from Pentagon accounts.

The Democratic measure would have canceled the $85 billion in cuts, and replaced them with a combination of tax increases

and cuts to defense and farm programs that would phase in over a decade. Deficits would have risen by more $42 billion in

the first year and $38 billion over the two following years before gradually beginning to decline.

While the White House has issued a steady

stream of severe warnings about the impact of across-the-board cuts, the

president

said Wednesday night, "This is not a cliff, but it is a tumble

downward. It's conceivable that in the first week, the first

two weeks, the first three weeks, the first month ... a lot of

people may not notice the full impact of the sequester."