A measure awarding generous funding to road and bridge projects, community development grants and housing help for the poor is running into stiff Republican opposition in the Senate.
The bill appeared likely to fall prey Thursday to a filibuster by Republicans unhappy that the legislation breaks through budget limits required by automatic spending cuts known as budget sequestration.
"Voting for appropriations legislation that blatantly violates budget reforms already agreed to by both parties moves our country in exactly, exactly the wrong direction," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said.
Far more austere companion legislation was pulled off the House floor Wednesday because, top lawmakers said, GOP leaders lacked the votes to pass it. The House Appropriations Committee chairman, Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said it was time to go back to the drawing board and come up with a compromise with congressional Democrats and the White House.
Taken together, the likely failure of both 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 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.
Congress heads out of Washington this week for a five-week vacation, leaving the mess to be dealt with in the fall. GOP leaders had sought to set up a budget showdown this summer with the need to pass legislation increasing the government's $16.7 trillion borrowing cap. But the government's better-than-expected fiscal performance has delayed that showdown into the fall.
President Obama says he won't negotiate over the debt limit like he did two years ago, a promise he repeated to his House and Senate allies in closed-door meetings on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
The situation on the House and Senate transportation measures reflects the broader dysfunction in Washington over the budget. All sides want to reverse the crippling sequestration cuts, but a partisan impasse over tax increases sought by Obama and his Democratic allies and cuts to so-called mandatory programs like Medicare and food stamps demanded by Republicans shows no signs of breaking.
Cuts in the House transportation measure were made deeper by a Republican move to cut an additional $40 billion-plus from domestic programs and transfer the money to the Pentagon. That left the transportation measure $10 billion, or about 18 percent, below the Senate's bill.
Rogers, who typically is cautious in his public statements, issued an unusually harsh blast, saying halting debate on the House measure reflected a failure of Republicans to follow up on their promises to cut spending with binding legislation.
"With this action, the House has declined to proceed on the implementation of the very budget it adopted just three months ago," Rogers said. He said the failed transportation and housing measure was the first major attempt by Republicans to pass an appropriations bill at levels consistent with the sequestration cuts and said the failure of the bill meant it was time for a new approach.
"The House, Senate and White House must come together as soon as possible on a comprehensive compromise that repeals sequestration, takes the nation off this lurching path from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis, reduces our deficits and debt, and provides a realistic topline discretionary spending level to fund the government in a responsible -- and attainable -- way," Rogers said.
On that, at least, there was agreement.
"The collapse of the partisan transportation and housing bill in the House proves that their sequestration-on-steroids bills are unworkable, and that we are going to need a bipartisan deal to replace sequestration," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chief author of the Senate bill.