Will Democrats Press 'Reset' Button on Capitol Hill?

Democrats are in full panic mode on Capitol Hill.  The Scott Brown victory in Massachusetts last week quashed more than the Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.  The “we won” swagger has disappeared in a flurry of infighting and finger pointing as House Democrats try to salvage their careers.

Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.) is the latest to choose retirement over facing the voters.  He took his parting shots in a no-holds-barred interview with Jane Fullerton of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

“Berry recounted meetings with White House officials, reminiscent of some during the Clinton days, where he and others urged them not to force Blue Dogs ‘off into that swamp’ of supporting bills that would be unpopular with voters back home.

“I’ve been doing that with this White House, and they just don’t seem to give it any credibility at all,” Berry said. “They just kept telling us how good it was going to be. The president himself, when that was brought up in one group, said, ‘Well, the big difference here and in ’94 was you’ve got me.’ We’re going to see how much difference that makes now.”

Ouch.  That one left a mark.

The White House still doesn’t appear to grasp the strength of the message voters are sending. The President is set to announce in the State of the Union address on Wednesday a sort-of freeze on discretionary spending for three years. The projected deficit for FY 2010 alone adds $1.5 trillion to the deficit.

Exempt from the freeze on spending increases would be Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, homeland security and defense. White House officials also told The Hill newspaper that health care spending resulting from pending legislation is also subject to increase.

“So while there’s an overall freeze it doesn’t mean that every single program or every single agency is frozen,” a senior administration official told The Hill.

So it’s not an actual discretionary spending freeze, but a discretionary, all-for-show spending freeze. The president’s as-yet-to-be-written spending cap concept would be subject to passage by Congress.

Sessions-Kyl-McCaskill Spending Cap Proposed

The Senate is set to address a four-year actual spending freeze this week proposed by a bi-partisan group of senators including Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).  The loss of the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat to a Republican has apparently had a profound impact on at least one member of the upper chamber.

The spending caps are proposed as an amendment to the debt limit increase legislation pending in the Senate.  Federal law currently places a $12.39 trillion limit on debt.  The Democrats’ bill would increase the debt ceiling to a staggering $14.29 trillion with budget projections indicating that additional increases will be required next year.  

The proposed amendment seeks to force binding limits on total defense- and nondefense- discretionary spending for fiscal years 2010 thru 2014, locking in increases at an average of less than two percent annually.  The spending caps could be waived by a 67 vote majority in a time of national emergency.

The Budget Enforcement Act of 1990 included five-year discretionary spending caps that were allowed to expire in 2002.  The 12 years of mandatory discretionary spending discipline helped produce four balanced budgets in the 1990s.

According to the backgrounder, “The amendment would impose separate caps on both defense and nondefense discretionary spending. Defense-discretionary spending would be limited to $556,128,000,000 in fiscal year 2010; $564,293,000,000 in 2011; $573,612,000,000 in 2012; $584,421,000,000 in 2013; and $598,249,000,000 in 2014. Nondefense-discretionary spending would be limited to $526,122,000,000 in fiscal year 2010; $529,662,000,000 in 2011; $533,232,000,000 in 2012; $540,834,000,000 in 2013; and $550,509,000,000 in 2014.”

“The American people have made it clear that they reject the philosophy of ever-increasing federal spending and deficits,” Sessions said.  “They recognize that our soaring national debt holds huge consequences for future generations, and it threatens the economic strength and future prosperity of this country.  Our bipartisan proposal gives senators an opportunity to respond to the public’s concerns by restoring the primacy of the budget to the spending process, and legally limiting discretionary spending to the modest increases determined by Congress. Working families all across America make and stick to a budget. Why shouldn’t Congress?”

“If there’s one thing that the American people can agree on, it’s the need to deal with our currently out-of-control deficits, and the need to deal with it now,” McCaskill said. “Nearly all Americans have faced challenges due to this economic recession, and most are trying to tighten their belts and find ways to stretch their dollars. It’s about time the federal government did the same.”

“During these tough economic times, Congress must learn to live within its means in the same way American families are being forced to,” Kyl said. “In 2009, Congress spent $705 billion more than the previous year and borrowed $1.4 trillion to cover its out-of-control spending. For the sake of American families and future generations, Congress needs to stop digging the nation deeper into the debt. I am pleased to join a bipartisan group of senators to introduce a measure that will help suppress Washington’s voracious appetite for spending.”

Under a procedural agreement reached in the Senate, the amendment will require 60 votes for passage. Senate Democrats apparently have no problem with the 60-vote threshold on legislation that would cap their spending.