WASHINGTON — The Senate killed competing bills on Thursday intended to alter the across-the-board cuts set to be triggered on Friday, including one by Sen. Jim Inhofe that would have given the Obama administration more discretion in how reductions are made.
Both bills fell well short of the votes needed to advance beyond procedural hurdles. A Democratic bill that would have used tax hikes on the wealthy and cuts to farm subsidies to replace this year's automatic cuts won a majority, but needed 60 votes to advance. Inhofe's bill drew only 38 votes, as even some Republicans voted against it.
The cuts are scheduled to take effect late Friday, and there was little optimism on either side that they could be averted. President Barack Obama and congressional leaders are scheduled to meet Friday at the White House, but the partisan divide over spending and taxes is expected to remain.
Obama released a statement Thursday criticizing Republicans for not backing the Democratic proposal that included tax hikes. He said he would discuss the next steps Friday with congressional leaders.
“As a nation, we can't keep lurching from one manufactured crisis to another,” he said. “Middle-class families can't keep paying the price for dysfunction in Washington. We can build on the over $2.5 trillion in deficit reduction we've already achieved, but doing so will require Republicans to compromise.”
Though the Pentagon and some agencies have warned of widespread furloughs, those aren't likely to occur for several weeks, so the real impact of the so-called sequester won't be immediately noticeable. The cuts are the result of the 2011 debt ceiling deal that required $1.2 trillion in spending reductions over 10 years.
Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps are mostly exempt from the cuts.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday that the spending cuts will have “a rolling impact, an effect that will build and build and build.”
Inhofe, R-Tulsa, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been working to blunt the impact of the cuts on the military. Nearly 800,000 Defense Department civilians, including 24,000 in Oklahoma, could be furloughed between late April and late September, and training and maintenance could be sharply curtailed.
“I was hoping this day wouldn't come, that we wouldn't be faced with further devastation of our military,” Inhofe said Thursday.
Inhofe's bill would have allowed the Obama administration leeway in making the $85 billion cuts necessary over the next seven months and given the Pentagon more flexibility under the legislation that will guide its spending for the next month.
Inhofe said Obama had complained recently about the “meat ax” approach to cuts required by the sequester, but was now rejecting Inhofe's bid to give him more flexibility to administer the cuts.
The White House harshly criticized Inhofe's bill, saying there was “no way to cut spending this dramatically over a seven-month period without drastically affecting national security and economic priorities.”
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee, praised the White House budget office for advising agencies to consider freezes on hiring and travel.
“While some in the administration have previously dismissed these savings as a ‘drop in a bucket,' the fact is each drop adds up to a torrent of savings,” Coburn said.
“In a government that wastes more than $350 billion annually through duplicative and wasteful spending there is no reason why the administration should make budget decisions that increase the chances of a terrorist attack or cause flight delays, layoffs or disruptions of lifesaving medical treatments.”