Senators offered a mix of reactions today to a White House proposal to freeze nonmilitary discretionary spending for the next three years.
It will be up to lawmakers to decide whether to move forward with any spending cuts. The president's proposal would not be an across-the-board chill but would have spending proposals for some programs decreasing while others increase.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees federal environmental agencies, noted that the proposal will affect a relatively small portion of overall federal spending. She said that fraction will continue to decrease as entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security grow.
"The problem with the president's proposal to freeze so-called nonsecurity appropriations is that it's so small a piece of the pie that it doesn't accomplish what has to be done," Feinstein said.
Feinstein said one of the solutions instead should be means-testing the entitlement programs, such as excluding people earning $200,000 a year or more from Social Security and Medicare. By contrast, freezing salaries or other programs in the Interior Department "isn't enough to do much," she said.
Other key Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.), said they are waiting to see more details about what would be cut.
"We have to make sure that we have money for education," Reid said. "We have to make sure we have money to take care of our civil society -- police, fire."
But Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said a freeze "is probably a good idea," and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) agreed.
"Providing it is very carefully defined up front, so people know what's in it, and what's not in it, because there are certain things we need to invest in and do in order to get out of the recession," Kerry said. "And I think it's important not to handicap that. And I think they're aware of that. And I think they'll come up with an important framework."
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) also supported the prospect. "I think it's a reasonable request we have an overall freeze," Cardin said. "It gives us the ability to make our own priorities, but if we want to move forward in one area, we have to have savings in another. To me, that makes sense. It's discipline."
Nonmilitary discretionary spending makes up about 25 percent of the federal budget. The freeze would not touch some of the largest areas of federal spending -- including the Defense Department, Homeland Security, the Veterans Administration and international affairs, as well as the fast-growing entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Senate Republicans today applauded President Obama's efforts to freeze spending levels but said the levels would still be too high after the administration ushered in steep spending increases recently.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he welcomed any step to reduce government spending but said the kind of modest proposal expected from Obama would not go far enough if the baseline includes funding from the stimulus package and the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who proposed a spending freeze on the campaign trail in 2008, sounded irritated. "It is what it is," McCain said. "We're going to have to cut spending, as well."
"Everything's exempted, so what's left?" asked Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee. "The problem is not going to be changed by this latest gesture."
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who sits on the Appropriations Committee and is the ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources panel, dismissed the proposal as a "gimmick" when it comes to deficit reduction.
"It sounds kinda good if you don't understand how much of our budget is nondiscretionary," Murkowski said. "John Q. Public looks and says, 'Great, they're cutting the deficit.' But when you fence off all those areas where there will not be any cuts, I believe that is just a drop in the bucket. I think there needs to be a little truth in advertising here."
A bipartisan pair of senators is pushing an amendment that would jump-start the budget squeeze.
The proposal from Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) would place stringent limits on nondefense and defense spending over the next five years. They expect a vote on the measure as soon as tomorrow.
"The bottom line is that sometimes out of the chaos comes a moment of clarity," McCaskill said. "And this may be one of those moments of clarity, where everybody can get on board and realize that while all the things we say 'yes' to are wonderful and important, that it's time the importance of our financial stability move up."
The amendment, which also has the backing of Republican leadership, would keep discretionary spending near 2010 levels. It allows for a relatively small 1.14 percent increase each year for nondefense discretionary spending. Defense accounts also have restrictions, with exemptions for times of war.
The limits would be far more stringent than recent federal spending bills. Fiscal 2010 appropriations gave a 12 percent boost to discretionary nondefense accounts. Even in the leaner spending bills during the Bush administration, those accounts saw an 8 percent boost on average, according to McCaskill.
The amendment would require 67 Senate votes to waive the restrictions.
"If the president's proposal and this one were to come to fruition, it would be a different world and we would feel it," Sessions said. "We're going to have to say 'no' to some things we said 'yes' to."
Reporters Robin Bravender, Darren Samuelsohn, Katherine Ling and Mike Soraghan contributed.