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Senate Democrats press ahead on spending bills while ignoring mandated cuts

Members of the House of Representatives walk down the steps of the Capitol after final votes in Washington, Wednesday, June 19, 2013.
Members of the House of Representatives walk down the steps of the Capitol after final votes in Washington, Wednesday, June 19, 2013.
J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — With efforts on a broader budget deal foundering, Senate Democrats moved ahead Thursday with spending bills that ignore a second year of spending cuts mandated under the 2011 budget and debt deal.

The Democratic-led appropriations panel added $91 billion to the spending "cap" called for under current law, setting out on a collision course with the GOP-dominated House, which has opted to stick within the spending limits mandated by Washington's inability to follow up the 2011 law with another deficit-reduction deal.

The Democratic cap equals what was called for in 2011 and is in line with the budget plan passed that passed the Senate in March, which calls for new taxes and spending cuts to replace the automatic cuts, known as sequestration.

At issue is the congressional appropriations process in which 12 individual bills set the day-to-day operating budgets of 15 Cabinet departments and other federal agencies. The bills make up a little more than one-third of the budget, with expensive benefit programs like Medicare and Social Security making up most of the rest.

The 12 bills represent Congress' most basic job but the appropriations process has broken down over the years and is showing signs of grinding to a complete halt this year. Congress is likely to resort yet again to a stopgap spending measure in September that keeps the government running but President Barack Obama has issued a blanket veto threat against the House GOP's spending measures, which reflect not just the sequestration-mandated cuts but transfers $28 billion from domestic programs in order to patch up the Pentagon's budget.

Republicans said that Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., should have stayed with the $967 billion cap that Congress is stuck with under sequestration and made the best of a bad situation. That figure is $17 billion below current levels. Mikulski instead opted for a $1.058 trillion cap, but since sequestration remains in place, the White House budget office would have to order another round of across-the-board to chop the bills back to the GOP-endorsed level.

"The majority's top-line number ignores the law and puts us on the path to another sequester," said top panel Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama. "If enacted, a discretionary spending level of $1.058 trillion would trigger an automatic cut that is 65 percent larger than the 2013 sequester."

Democrats countered that the move by House Republicans to boost the Pentagon budget also violates limits under sequestration and that a House defense spending bill would, itself, trigger a sequester.

"While the House plan tries to avoid cuts to defense at the expense of infrastructure and education, they won't be able to protect the Pentagon without an agreement," said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash. "$552 billion in defense spending would be sequestered back down to $498 billion_unless we can get a bipartisan deal."

There was more bipartisan agreement when the panel turned to spending bills funding the Veterans Affairs Department and a measure funding agriculture programs and Pentagon construction projects.

The $20.9 billion agriculture measure restores House GOP cuts to the popular overseas Food for Peace food aid program and the Womens Infants and Children program that delivers food aid to pregnant women and their babies.