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Senate Democrats unveil counteroffer as budget talks continue

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats unveiled a detailed counteroffer Friday seeking to undo tens of billions of dollars in cuts that Republicans would make to education, housing and other domestic programs.

With the two parties maneuvering for advantage in their budget clash, the Democratic plan conforms to President Barack Obama's opening gambit to cut another $6.5 billion from domestic agencies. But neither it nor the $61 billion in cuts passed by House Republicans is expected to survive test votes next week in the Senate.

Both sides view the votes as necessary preludes to negotiations on narrowing the gap between the cuts the White House wants and those the Republicans want. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid called the GOP reductions "mean-spirited."

Facing a federal deficit of $1.6 trillion, the White House and Congress have struggled to produce a long-overdue plan for the ongoing budget year. House Republican leaders are under pressure from tea party members in their ranks for significant spending cuts, putting them at odds with Democrats who control the Senate.

The Democratic plan unveiled by Reid, D-Nev., completely restores money the House Republicans want to cut from education, health and job training programs. It provides a modest increase for homeland security rather than the 2 percent cut proposed by Republicans. And it softens cuts to housing subsidies and community development grants, while restoring about $5 billion in foreign aid, including help for allies in the war on terror, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But it's not likely to please the Defense Department. The Pentagon has already complained that the slightly more generous House measure would leave it without enough money to meet vital military requirements.

Reid promised votes next week on both plans but said he doesn't expect either to win the 60 votes needed to pass.

"Our plan recognizes that we're not in a competition to determine who can cut the most, without regard for the consequences," Reid said. He said the House Republicans' plan "is based in ideology; ours is based in reality. These are decisions about real money that solve real problems that affect real lives."

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a participant in Thursday's talks with Vice President Joe Biden and congressional leaders, said the Democratic plan does nothing more than maintain the status quo. It falls far short of a House-passed GOP bill slashing domestic agencies by 13 percent or more on average.

The Senate plan cuts the agency budgets directly set by Congress $12 billion below 2010 levels. The Pentagon would receive a $6 billion increase, which forces deeper cuts in domestic programs treasured by Democrats. The GOP alternative is far more aggressive, imposing cuts that some old-school Republicans aren't comfortable with.

In opening talks Thursday, Biden offered Republicans a package of mostly recycled budget cuts totaling $6.5 billion in response to House legislation slashing domestic agency budgets back to levels in place before Obama took office.

The White House cuts fell well short of what resurgent Republicans are demanding but were portrayed by Democrats as an attempt to meet Republicans in the middle.

Senate Democrats unveil counteroffer as budget talks continue 03/04/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 4, 2011 11:19pm]
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