Senate vote: OK $85 billion cuts, avert shutdown

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate approved

legislation Wednesday to lock in $85 billion in widely decried spending

cuts aimed at

restraining soaring federal deficits — and to avoid a government

shutdown just a week away. President Barack Obama's fellow

Democrats rejected a call to reopen White House tours scrapped

because of the tightened spending.

Federal meat inspectors were spared

furloughs, but more than 100 small and medium air traffic facilities

were left exposed

to possible closure as the two parties alternately clashed and

cooperated over proposals to take the edge off across-the-board

spending cuts that took effect on March 1.

Final House approval of the measure is

likely as early as Thursday. Obama's signature is a certainty, meaning

the cuts will

remain in place at least through the end of the budget year on

Sept. 30 — even though he and lawmakers in both parties have

criticized them as random rather than targeted. Obama argued

strongly against them in campaign-style appearances, predicting

painful consequences, before they began taking effect, and

Republicans objected to impacts on Pentagon spending.

Without changes, the $85 billion in cuts for

the current year will swell to nearly $1 trillion over a decade, enough

to make

at least a small dent in economy-threatening federal deficits but

requiring program cuts that lawmakers in both parties say

are unsustainable politically. As a result, negotiations are

possible later in the year to replace the reductions with different

savings.

The administration as well as Republicans picked and chose its spots in arguing for flexibility in this year's cuts.

"My hope is that gets done," Agriculture

Secretary Tom Vilsack said earlier in the week of the effort to prevent

layoffs among

inspectors that could disrupt the nation's food supply chain. "If

it does not, come mid-July we will furlough meat inspectors,"

he added, departing from the administration's general position

that flexibility should ease all the cuts or none at all.

Nor did the White House resist a bipartisan plan to prevent any cut in tuition assistance programs for members of military.

The final vote was 73-26, with 51 Democrats, 20 Republicans and two independents in favor and 25 Republicans and Democratic

Sen. Jon Tester of Montana opposed.

Political considerations were on ample

display in both houses as lawmakers labored over measures relating to

spending priorities,

both for this year and a decade into the future.

Rep. Mark Mulvaney, R-S.C., said he had

wanted the House to vote on Obama's own budget, but he noted the

president hadn't

yet released one. "It's with great regret ... that I'm not able to

offer" a presidential budget for a vote, he said. He added

he had wanted to vote on a placeholder — "34 pages full of

question marks" — but House rules prevented it.

Minority Democrats advanced a plan that calls for $1 trillion in higher taxes, $500 billion in spending cuts over a decade

and a $200 billion economic stimulus package. Republicans voted it down, 253-165.

They are expected to approve their own very different blueprint on Thursday.

It calls for $4.6 trillion in spending cuts

over a decade and no tax increases, a combination that projects to a

balanced

budget in 10 years' time. That spending plan would indeed be

simply a blueprint, lacking any actual control over federal spending.

The issues were grittier in the Senate,

where lawmakers grappled with the immediate impact of across-the-board

cuts on individual

programs.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a deficit hawk,

said he wanted to reopen the White House tours, shut down since earlier

in the month.

He said his proposal would take about $8 million from the National

Heritage Partnership Program and apply it toward "opening

up the tours at the White House, opening up Yellowstone National

Park and the rest of the national parks."

White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters previously the decision the cancel the White House tours was made by

the Secret Service because "it would be, in their view, impossible to staff those tours; that they would have to withdraw

staff from those tours in order to avoid more furloughs and overtime pay cuts."

But in remarks on the Senate floor, Coburn said, "This is a Park Service issue, not a Secret Service issue."

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said the funds involved in Coburn's amendment would not go to the Secret Service, and as a result

the tours "would not be affected." He also said the Heritage program, a public-private partnership, helps produce economic

development and should not be cut.

The vote was 54-45 against the proposal. Montana Sen. Max Baucus, whose state borders on Yellowstone National Park, was the

only Democrat to vote with Republicans.

The Park Service has announced some parks may open late to automobile traffic this spring because budget cuts have reduced

funds available to clear roads of winter snow.

The overall legislation locks in the $85 billion in spending cuts through the end of the budget year, yet provides several

departments and agencies with flexibility in coping with them. It extends flexibility to the Pentagon, the departments of

Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, Justice, State and Commerce and the Food and Drug Administration.

But bipartisanship has its limits, and in private negotiations Republicans rejected Democratic attempts to provide flexibility

for the rest of the government.

That set off a scramble among lawmakers to round up support for changes on a case-by-case basis.

The provision to prevent furloughs for

federal meat inspectors had the support of industry as well as from both

sides of the

political aisle and cleared without a vote. It was supported by

Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, a Democrat seeking re-election

next year, and Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, who quietly helped

Democrats round up the votes they needed to clear the legislation

over a procedural hurdle.

The effect was to transfer $55 million to the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service from other accounts

within the department, including deferred maintenance.

"Without this funding, every meat, poultry,

and egg processing facility in the country would be forced to shut down

for up

to two weeks," said Blunt. "That means high food prices and less

work for the hardworking Americans who work in these facilities

nationwide."

In contrast to Blunt, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, opposed Democrats when they sought to overcome procedural hurdles earlier

in the week.

In the days since, he repeatedly refused to let the bill advance unless he was given a chance to cancel about $50 million

in cuts aimed at contract employees at more than 170 air traffic facilities around the country. In the end, his amendment

was jettisoned without a vote.