The partisan feud over federal budget cuts moves this week from the House of Representatives to the Senate, where lawmakers are set to vote on two competing proposals.
One is the bill passed by House Republicans last month. It cuts more than $60 billion this year from domestic programs and foreign aid. The other is a White House-backed measure that trims $6.5 billion. Neither is expected to pass.
The federal government would have had to start shutting down Monday had Congress not passed a continuing resolution last week, keeping federal programs in business until the end of next week. For congressional Republicans, that stopgap measure was a victory, because it's a two-week version of what they'd like done the rest of this fiscal year, which is to cut about $2 billion a week from current funding levels.
This has put Democrats on the defensive. They don't want to be accused of ignoring this year's $1.5 trillion deficit, and they don't want to be held responsible if there's a government shutdown. Democrats sound ready to make more concessions.
"There's no dispute on the 53 Democrats — we are willing to cut, we've cut $51 billion from our president's budget," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said last week on the Senate floor. "And as we talked about, we're willing to do more, but we're not willing to do this with a meat ax."
Reid was referring to the budget the White House proposed last week to get through this fiscal year. It is $51 billion less than what President Obama had originally asked for, but that budget was never adopted. Democrats are, in reality, proposing to cut only about a tenth as much as Republicans are from current spending levels. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) calls the Democrats' budget proposal "unserious."
"What the White House is proposing is little more than one more proposal to maintain the status quo — to give the appearance of action where there is none," he said. "The latest proposal is unacceptable, and it's indefensible."
McConnell made clear he and his fellow Republicans will vote against what the Democrats are proposing; Reid called the bill with $60 billion in cuts that Republicans are backing "probably one of the worst pieces of legislation ever drafted." Neither proposal, he added, will garner the 60 votes needed to move forward.
"We have to acknowledge that the answer that will allow us to move forward lies somewhere between our two positions, perhaps, and we have to recognize that digging in one's heels threatens our fiscal footing," Reid said. "If one side stubbornly demands victory, everybody loses."
But Republicans are not in a mood to compromise.
"The Republicans are very firm about the fact that they have to have the kind of movement toward deficit reduction that is included in their CR proposal," said Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID).
Democrats, meanwhile, are divided. Those who are more conservative or facing re-election next year seem ready to go along with more budget cuts. Others, such as Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, feel betrayed.
"I'm disappointed in the White House — I'm greatly disappointed, so far, in what they have been advocating, which basically is sort of buying into, 'We've got to cut everything out of discretionary,' " Harkin said. "The White House is wrong on that."
Real attempts to bridge differences have yet to begin. Jack Pitney, a congressional expert at California's Claremont McKenna College, says serious negotiations on how much more to cut won't take place until this week's votes make clear to both sides that neither of the proposals before the Senate has the support needed to pass.
"Eventually, we're going to see some substantial cuts; the big question I don't think anybody really knows the answer [to] is what's the final number going to be," Pitney said. "It's probably going to be less than the Tea Party Republicans like and more than the Democrats would like."
In other words, a compromise.