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Senate debt deal excludes sequester-flexibility language

Emergency measure to reopen government, raise debt ceiling passes 81-18

Oct. 16, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
By JOHN T. BENNETT   |   Comments
A measure to reopen government, raise debt ceiling — which passed the US Senate on Wednesday — did not include the ability for the Pentagon to decide what gets cut under sequestration, as defense hawks sought. Pictured: The second Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II for the Netherlands is rolled out of the a production facility on March 2.
A measure to reopen government, raise debt ceiling — which passed the US Senate on Wednesday — did not include the ability for the Pentagon to decide what gets cut under sequestration, as defense hawks sought. Pictured: The second Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II for the Netherlands is rolled out of the a production facility on March 2. (Lockheed Martin)

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WASHINGTON — The US Senate on Tuesday evening approved legislation to end a government shutdown and avert a federal debt default that excludes proposed language to give Pentagon leaders the authority to decide what gets cut under sequestration.

Senate Republican hawks had pushed a plan for two weeks that would have granted Defense Department and other federal agency leaders the ability to protect high-priority programs and cut deeper from lower-priority ones.

But House hawks, like House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., and Senate Democrats opposed the idea, worried it would make sequestration too tolerable and tough to roll back.

House defense hawks want to completely undo the defense piece of sequestration, as they have for months. Senate Democrats are in the opening weeks of a push to do the same — but also an equal domestic piece.

Under the 2011 Budget Control Act, planned domestic and defense spending must be cut by $1 trillion by 2021. The first batch of those cuts, about $50 billion for each, kicked in last March. The next round is slated to kick in on Jan. 15.

The Senate’s emergency measure, approved by an 81-18 vote, would raise the debt ceiling until Feb. 15 and keep the government funded through Jan. 15.

Senior Senate Democrats want to spend the next three months negotiating with Republicans and the White House over replacing all the sequester cuts with other deficit-paring items. Republicans are willing to listen, but only if the proposed replacement measures are “real” and not gimmicks.

That sets up a major fight over government spending, and will pit Democrats and defense hawks with deficit-minded House and Senate tea party Republicans.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and other bipartisan lawmakers wanted to include in the emergency measure language that would allow federal agency brass the ability to decide what gets cut under sequestration.

Pentagon brass and industry officials — joined by congressional hawks — say such flexibility would help avoid deeper cuts to things like operations and maintenance accounts and procurement programs.

But House hawks and Democrats won the day, worried flexibility language would hinder sequestration-replacement efforts this winter.

GOP leadership sources and public comments from Senate Democratic leaders supported the flexibility idea. But a summary of the last-minute, emergency fiscal legislation released minutes before the Senate floor vote shows the plan was dropped in last-minute talks about the final version of the emergency bill.

The House is expected to also approve the measure before midnight and send it to President Barack Obama ahead of a Treasury Department-set Thursday debt default deadline.

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