WASHINGTON — It was bound to happen: As the sequester budget cuts are felt around the country, lawmakers are having second thoughts — and trying to tinker with them in a way that could lead to a full-scale government shutdown.
Senators want to load up a routine spending bill with provisions to reopen the White House to tours, shield meat inspectors from furloughs and keep air traffic control towers staffed, among other changes that would rearrange the across-the-board cuts.
Nearly 100 amendments have been filed by senators on both sides of the political aisle, stalling the measure that is needed to keep the government running after March 27. Without approval, the government would shut down, a prospect lawmakers and President Obama have said they want to avoid.
“I have to say, I’m disappointed,” said an exasperated Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid last week as he assigned staff from both parties to work through the weekend to narrow the list. Any changes to the bill would need approval in the House, which has already passed the bill. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has warned against wholesale adjustments.
Reid scolded the senators for their “if he gets his, I want mine” attitude and warned them not to provoke “the ire of the speaker.”
By Monday, the scope had been trimmed some, but not enough to produce a consensus from both parties. And Reid threatened to keep the Senate in session beyond next week’s scheduled spring recess if senators do not finish their work. “We’ll stay as long as it takes,” the Nevada Democrat said.
Senators, though, are not known for easily letting go of the power they wield over legislation. They frequently use their ability to tie the chamber in procedural knots until they get their way.
Not all of the proposed changes are limited to reinstating cuts made when the $85 billion in reductions began March 1 after Congress failed to reach a deal to avert them.
Some deal with thorny domestic and foreign policy issues. One amendment, already defeated, would have delayed money needed for the new healthcare law.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a top deficit hawk, has filed a half-dozen amendments, including to freeze federal hiring and restrict the ability of federal employees to travel to conferences.
Other amendments, though, go to the heart of the sequester cuts and seek to reshuffle the reductions in a way that their sponsors find more politically acceptable.
Ten senators from both parties want to shift $50 million to keep air traffic control towers open, taking the money away from the Federal Aviation Administration’s research and capital accounts.
“The president is playing politics with public safety by closing contract air traffic control towers across the nation — six in my state of Oklahoma,” Republican Sen. James Inhofe said in a statement.
Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) led another bipartisan group that has proposed restoring money for a tuition assistance program for military service members. “Denying educational opportunities to our service members is the wrong way to find savings,” Hagan wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
An amendment from Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) would transfer $55 million within the Agriculture Department to keep meat inspectors on the job. Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) wants to shift money from a Pentagon biofuels account to shore up defense operations and maintenance, as an Army depot in his state announced layoffs.
Perhaps the most crowd-pleasing amendment is from Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) to reopen the White House to public tours. The cancellations have brought scorn from Republicans and others.
Moran said the cuts should be made “in ways that do not intentionally and unnecessarily inflict hardship and aggravation upon the American people.” He proposes shifting $2.5 million from the Transportation Security Administration to the Secret Service to cover the $2.14 million needed to keep the White House doors open.
Not all of the amendments will come to a vote. To do so would take more time than Senate leaders from both sides appear willing to give the bill. So far, only a few have been approved, including a proposal from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to cut spending for proposed civilian military infrastructure on Guam.
In fact, if the Senate amendments cannot be winnowed, as Reid has asked, the leader has threatened to force a vote on the overall spending bill without any amendments, which would certainly draw protests from senators.
Boehner is keeping an eye on the action. Any changes would have to be approved by his restive Republican majority. “Our goal here is to cut spending,” he said. “It's not to shut down the government.”