Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, flanked by Republicans on the powerful Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, highlighted what he believes is his party's most potent political weapon this fall: reining in the deficit and bringing down the debt.
In a letter to the spending committee's chairman, Daniel Inouye, D-HI, all of the panel's Republicans requested a discretionary top-line spending cap at fiscal year 2011 projected levels, that being $26 billion less than President Obama's submitted budget, according to Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-NH.
"Over the last two years discretionary spending has increased by 17%, not including stimulus spending. With stimulus spending included the increase soars to 84%," the letter reads, and warns, "We will not...be able to support appropriations bills that do not conform to this top-line number."
Without a budget, Democrats will need to set a maximum amount for spending. Republicans are, in essence, saying that bills can total any amount, as long as the total at the end of the day does not exceed the cap.
Unless Democrats, who are not expected to submit a budget this year, concede, this is a potent threat that could freeze the entire spending process, as Democrats lack the 60 votes to break any filibuster. While numerous Democratic leadership aides concede the Senate is not likely to complete action on all 12 annual spending bills, most say the the committee will at least attempt to move on the bill that funds the Defense Department and possibly some others.
"The American people are saying to us: You're spending too much, you're running up too many debts, and we expect you to do something about it," McConnell told reporters, adding, "We're pleased to announce today that we're going to recommend a smaller pie, if you will, a smaller discretionary spending budget to our friends in the majority, and hope they will join us."
Some Democrats have, in fact, supported that smaller pie in a spending freeze amendment originally introduced by Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-MO, and Jeff Sessions, R-AL, but the measure failed by only a handful of votes on three different occasions, with all Republicans supporting the measure.
For her part, McCaskill is certainly pleased at this sudden push. “The bottom line is we need to get this amendment passed, so I’m excited that Senate Republicans are fighting harder for its passage,” McCaskill said in a statement released Tuesday. “I hope more of my fellow Democrats – including the President – will decide to join us and help put a stop to the run-away spending that has become the norm in Washington.”
In January, when the amount the nation can charge to its federal credit card (called the "debt ceiling") needed to be raised, McCaskill-Sessions first introduced their cap as an amendment. The measure failed by just four votes, with 16 Democrats supporting it, a tally that was mimicked when the bipartisan duo tried again in March on an FAA bill. The two tried a third time in June on jobs legislation and came closest to passage, garnering 17 Democrats.
The President, earlier this year in his State of the Union address, called for a three year spending freeze, though Republicans have ripped Democrats for exempting certain big ticket items, like the stimulus bill and jobless benefits, as emergency spending and thus not liable to so-called "pay as you go" rules that require spending cuts or tax increases to offset any possible increase in the deficit.
But one senior Senate Democratic leadership aide accused Republicans of taking the easy way out. "If they're serious about cutting spending they should do the real work: decide what programs they think should be cut and by how much, and then be willing to stand by those choices," the aide told Fox.
While Republicans are not happy with the levels of spending by the Obama Administration, they do seem to be happy with the man the president has chosen to head the agency that is charged with assembling his budget, Jack Lew, who held the job during the Clinton Administration. This OMB Director-designate earned high praise from Gregg, top Republican on the committee that will first sit in judgment of the nomination, who said, "I find him to be very thoughtful, very smart, very capable" and that he would "certainly be supporting (the nomination)."