NEW: "Just to sit here by myself serves no purpose," says GOP congressman leaving D.C.
Obama and Hill leaders are set to meet Friday, but hopes for progress are low
Senate rejects competing Democratic and Republican alternatives to the current cuts
Republicans, Democrats blame each other for $85 billion in widely disliked spending cuts
Absent an unforeseen agreement, $85 billion in widely disliked spending cuts begin to take effect Friday. The cuts are a product of the sequester, which Congress and President Barack Obama agreed to in hopes of making such slashing so unpalatable that it forces them to reach an alternative.
So what did many lawmakers do the day before the painful cuts take effect?
“I think the sequester is crazy, I think the president had to show more leadership, Congress should do more,” said Rep. Peter King, a Republican heading back to New York. “But just to sit here by myself serves no purpose.”
King was one of many congressmen who, before noon on Thursday, walked down the Capitol steps and into awaiting cars to leave Washington. Democrats criticized Republicans for not even sticking around when the cuts start coming; Republicans, in turn, blasted Democrats for not stepping up to do more to reign in spending.
Thus, there was plenty of blame to go around – but not a lot of action.
The Republican-controlled House held one vote Thursday on the Violence Against Women Act. The chamber had no votes scheduled on Friday. Neither did the Senate.
There will be some movement Friday, if for no other reason than that’s when Obama would be required to start implementing the cuts through the end of the current fiscal year.
Also, the president is set to meet with congressional leaders from both parties at the White House.
Expectations for that meeting are low. Most observers think both sides will use the occasion to underline their positions heading into the next round of the budget wars – a possible government shutdown on March 27, when current federal funding authority expires.
“I mean, we could stay here … and not pass … a bill,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington, as he left the Capitol. “That’s not any better.”
Senate holds show votes on Democratic, GOP alternatives
As expected, a sharply divided Senate voted Thursday afternoon to reject alternative plans put forward by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky. Reid’s plan got 51 votes in support while McConnell’s got 38 – well shy of the 60 needed to clear the 100-member chamber.
Reid had proposed replacing the current spending cut package with a $110 billion blueprint that included placing new taxes on millionaires while cutting agriculture subsidies and defense spending. Most Republicans object to new defense cuts and have called any new taxes unacceptable.
McConnell wanted to give Obama more flexibility to pick a set of replacement cuts by March 15. Democrats considered the proposal a trap, designed to put more responsibility for the cuts on Obama’s shoulders. Critics in both parties considered the idea an abdication of Congress’s power of the purse.
Who bucked the party line?
Nine Republicans voted against McConnell’s proposal: New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, Maine’s Susan Collins, Texas’s Ted Cruz, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, Nevada’s Dean Heller, Utah’s Mike Lee, Arizona’s John McCain, Kentucky’s Rand Paul and Florida’s Marco Rubio.
Three Democrats opposed Reid’s plan: North Carolina’s Kay Hagan, Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and Arkansas’s Mark Pryor.
Reid himself also voted against the Democratic bill, but purely for procedural reasons.
Reid, McConnell continue to play the blame game
“Republicans call (their) plan ‘flexibility.’ But let’s call it what it really is: a punt,” Reid said on the Senate floor Thursday morning. “Republicans should give Congress true flexibility – flexibility to cut wasteful subsidies, flexibility to close unnecessary tax loopholes and flexibility to ask the richest of the rich to contribute a little more. Instead, they’re completely inflexible – insisting we risk hundreds of thousands of American jobs, as well as programs that strengthen families and small businesses across this nation.
“But that should come as no surprise,” Reid added. “As usual, Republicans have put the demands of special interests over the needs of middle-class Americans.”
McConnell replied by insisting top Democrats knew before Thursday they lacked the votes to pass Reid’s proposal.
“For the president and his allies, that’s really the whole point. They want it to fail, so they can go around the country blaming Republicans for a (spending cuts package) the president proposed,” he said. “Instead of changing as they promised, Washington Democrats are just turning back to the same old campaign-first strategy they’ve employed for years.”
The Kentucky Republican also accused Obama of wanting to the make the looming cuts “bite as hard as possible – all to send a simple message to the public: ‘You want to control Washington spending, America? Fine, let me show you much I can make it hurt.’ “
The same game plays out in the House
The back-and-forth was little different, in tone, in the House.
Speaker John Boehner, referred to two GOP-authored bills the chamber passed last Congress on partisan lines to replace the now-imminent spending cuts. Democrats dismissed the bills, which had no chance of clearing the Senate or surviving a presidential veto, as ideological showboating. Furthermore, the bills are null for the moment since they didn’t pass the House as presently constituted.
But that didn’t stop Boehner, an Ohio Republican, from trying to put the onus on the Democratic-led Senate.
“We’ve done our work,” he said Thursday morning. Senators have “not done theirs. The House shouldn’t have to pass a third bill to replace the (looming cuts) before the Senate passes one.”
Pelosi says spending cuts = war on women
Friday “is the beginning of Women’s History Month,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, told reporters on Capitol Hill. “We like to think of it as Women’s Progress Month, acknowledging our history, seeing what more we have to do. And why I mention these two points is because of the impact of (the current spending cuts package) on women. It is specific, it is large, and it’s substantial, and it must be avoided.”
“Just consider this,” Pelosi added. “Cuts to women’s health from prenatal care to cancer screenings, cuts to services, to victims of domestic violence – $20 million will be cut out of the Violence Against Women account. … Cuts to initiatives to support children and families, like WIC (the Women, Infants, and Children program) and Head Start, cuts to public sector jobs, where women are 50% more likely than men to be employed, and therefore fired.”
Democrats “come to Washington to be legislators,” she insisted. “Somehow, that piece is missing in what the Republicans are doing here. They’re just making noise. They’re just saying something that might have good sound for domestic consumption back home. But they did not come here to legislate.”
CNN’s Dana Bash, Ted Barrett, Carol Cratty, Tom Cohen and Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.