Toomey, Durbin clash as sequester nears

WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted down PA Republican Sen. Pat Toomey’s plan to offer President Obama flexibility in how he applies $85 billion in budget cuts set to begin Friday under the so-called “sequester” – but only after an unusually intense debate on the Senate floor between Toomey and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the chamber’s second ranking Democrat.

The Senate then also defeated a Democratic alternative to sequestration, and with the House wrapping up its business at noon on an unrelated vote, official Washington limped away to train rides and flights home with the sequester securely in place and set to begin Friday.

“In the words of Chairman Mao,” said Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), “it’s always darkest before it’s totally black.”

Of course, just because the cuts go into effect Friday doesn’t mean anyone will notice (and it certainly doesn’t seem like they’ve been paying attention so far). Even the White House, after releasing a list of scary prospects Sunday, has acknowledged that the cuts won’t start having a tangible impact for a few weeks.

One of the most immediate cuts – reductions in checks for people on long-term unemployment coverage – won’t be seen until late this month, the Deptartment of Labor said. The furloughs that might hit civilian defense workers and air traffic controllers -- leading to the feared delays that have gotten so much attention -- likely wouldn’t hit until April.

So, lacking urgency, the House voted on the Violence Against Women Act and the Senate took up two bills that both parties knew had no chance of passing.

In the Senate, Toomey’s came first. His plan, crafted along with Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, would have given President Obama flexibility to make the $85 billion cuts as he chose, instead of applying them across the board.

“Any competent middle manager of any business in America knows when you have to tighten your belt you go through and you prioritize things,” Toomey said. Shutting down air traffic control towers, he said, isn’t necessary. “Give the president flexibility to cut the items that would not be disruptive to our economy.”

But Durbin called Toomey’s argument “mindless” and said the cuts are so large, and would have to be applied in such a short time frame that they can’t be applied in any way that won’t have an adverse effect.

“It is mindless to stand here on the Senate floor and say we can cut $1 billion out of the Department of Transportation and no one will feel it – come on, get real,” Durbin said. “We have seven months left in this (fiscal) year. These agencies are trying to come up with the savings and the only places they can turn are very limited.”

He added, “please don’t sugar coat it and say there is just a magic wand out there to find all this money.”

Durbin and Toomey talked over one another at several points, trading jabs in a way rarely seen on the Senate floor.

Moments later Toomey’s plan was shot down in a 38-62 vote; nine fellow Republicans opposed the plan, worried about handing too much power to the president.

Obama has criticized the idea that flexibility alone with make the cuts palatable, and the White House threatened to veto Toomey's bill. With seven months left in the fiscal year and many big-ticket items off-limits to the sequester – including Medicare, Social Security and uniformed military personnel – the cuts would fall heavily on the remaining pieces of the budget, Democrats argued.

Obama has instead called for replacing the $85 billion cuts with a similarly-sized mix of measured cuts (largely to agriculture subsidies) and tax increases (largely by closing loopholes and making sure people making $5 million and up pay a minimum rate of 30 percent).

That idea, though, also failed: 51 senators voted for it and 49 opposed it, leaving it short of the 60 votes needed to proceed to a final vote.

With that, Congress finished its work for the week and left, accepting the onset of budget cuts both parties have said should never happen.

They are unlikely to be undone in the immediate future. Instead, most are eyeing March 27, when the current budget agreement expires. Obama and Congress will have to agree to a new spending plan by then, or else risk a government shutdown, and most people in Washington expect that the sequester cuts will be folded into that debate.

In other words, get ready for more proclamations of doom, blame and brinksmanship before a resolution.