Competing plans to fund the government through September both flopped yesterday, ensuring that deeper cuts to existing programs, including perhaps clean energy portfolios, will be proposed to avoid a federal shutdown.
The dueling Senate votes appear to show that lawmakers are unwilling to make large cuts totaling $61 billion as proposed by the House. It also reveals that the Democrats' target of $10 billion in reductions is too low. The yardage between those numbers will decrease, but it's unclear at what point agreement can be found.
The back-to-back votes were largely symbolic, a method agreed to by both parties at a White House meeting last week to purge existing spending plans seen as too extreme, or too weak, by their opponents. The result means that some programs will feel deeper reductions compared to last year's funding, as Democrats and Republicans seek to overcome their budget impasse.
"The outcome of those votes will, we think, help guide us forward in terms of the search for common ground," White House press secretary Jay Carney said yesterday, adding that President Obama is "willing to do more" to reduce spending.
Even as the administration was signaling concession, however, it stood firm on the president's key priorities. Carney emphasized that funding for energy innovation, education and transportation infrastructure is vital to the nation's economic health.
That sets the stage for a tricky task. The White House and Senate Democrats are now faced with defending heightened funding for energy programs and other priorities, even as conservative Republicans are calling for sweeping cuts aimed at that sector to diminish the $1.6 trillion deficit.
Are energy programs on the table?
Among the programs that Democrats could seek to protect is the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E. The agency looks for big winners in energy -- so-called "breakthrough" technologies that can transform the economy. Senate Democrats want to give it $200 million for the remaining year, while House Republicans offered $50 million. Obama highlighted ARPA-E in his State of the Union address.
Other programs could be on the chopping block. Democrats want to give $4.7 billion to the Department of Energy's Office of Science, but Republicans offered $4 billion. The Senate also supports $335 million in funding for the Strategic Climate Fund and the Clean Technology Fund, both of which the House wants to zero out.
And Democrats set aside $1.9 billion for DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, while the House had set its level at $1.47 billion.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said yesterday on the floor that the House was cutting "mindlessly" into programs that save energy, promote research and create jobs. The effect, he said, would "impact our nation for years to come."
Bingaman said the House plan would slash 4,500 full-time scientists and engineers from national laboratories and universities working on energy science research topics. Other facilities supporting some 25,000 scientists in academia would be "shuttered or put into a standby status," he said, including four nano science centers that study breakthrough technologies like light-emitting diode, or LED, lights, as well as microelectronics and new drugs.
One Republican has 'reservations'
Bingaman also lamented proposed cuts to weatherization programs, which he said would see a reduction of about 8,000 employees by July, resulting in 31,000 homes not receiving inexpensive treatment to save energy. In addition, DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy, which Bingaman said is studying modular reactors, would be pinched as the nation is seeking faster ways to ramp up nuclear power plants.
"This is leading the way to a new generation of smaller, less costly reactors," Bingaman said. "This effort will suffer."
At least one Republican agreed with him about the impact on weatherization programs. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) joined all but three of her GOP colleagues in supporting the House bill, H.R. 1. The measure gained just 44 supporters, 16 votes short of passage. Three Republicans opposed it because they believed deeper cuts are needed.
"I voted in favor the bill, but I have a lot of reservations about many of the provisions in it," Collins said afterward. "The fact is that both these votes this afternoon were a waste of time. They represented just message votes. Now that we're past that stage, I hope we can sit down with the White House and negotiate a true budget package."
"I did not support the termination of the weatherization program," she added. "I think that's incredibly shortsighted."
10 Dems break from leadership
Likewise, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who faces re-election next year, supported the House plan.
"What we need to do is have a legislative process work, so we can have amendments and work through the process," she said. "I think that's the key. That's what we were denied. The House of Representatives had 700 amendments, and we had none."
"Hopefully, the president will use his voice to summon a leadership meeting," she added.
Asked if she would have offered an amendment that increases clean energy funding, she said, "I hadn't thought about which ones, but certainly I would have considered amendments I would have offered."
The Democrats' plan, meanwhile, received even fewer votes than its House counterpart, with 42 Democratic supporters. Ten centrist Democrats abandoned their caucus to vote against the measure, including Sens. Michael Bennet (Colo.), Kay Hagan (N.C.), Herb Kohl (Wis.), Carl Levin (Mich.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Mark Udall (Colo.) and Jim Webb (Va.). Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) also opposed the measure.
McCaskill, who faces tough re-election prospects next year, said that Democrats need to offer deeper cuts. She also said it's important to preserve the president's priorities, such as clean energy, but with the current fiscal crisis, she indicated that it's difficult to offer a commitment to individual programs.
"I know we haven't gone far enough," McCaskill said yesterday. "And I know that all of [the House] cuts were focused in way too narrow a band -- involving education, innovation, clean energy and certainly highway construction."
"I just want to make sure the pain is felt in more places than in the House position," she added.