Senate Democrats on Tuesday offered a plan to soften the blow of $85 billion in sequestration budget cuts by using unspent war funding to offset the cuts, upping the political pressure on Republicans to address cuts that are already creating flight delays and other inconveniences for the public.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., introduced a bill that would use Pentagon savings from the wars winding down in Afghanistan and Iraq -- estimated at $650 billion -- to offset some of this year's sequester cuts. It could be on the Senate floor as early as this week. Cuts to government agencies and programs mandated under the sequester started to take effect last month, but additional furloughs and program cuts loom.
"Let's use this money," Reid said. "We could do it for five months [until the end of the federal fiscal year]. During this five-month period, we could come up with something that was longer-term."
The sequester amounts to more than $1 trillion in budget reductions over the next decade. President Obama said he wants to replace the sequester cuts with tax increases, but there is little appetite among Republicans or many Democrats for new taxes.
Reid's bill dodges a politically painful vote on higher taxes while turning up pressure on Republicans by using budget language first proposed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, of Wisconsin, a leading Republican and former vice presidential candidate.
Paul's budget estimated that winding down the wars could save more than $1 trillion.
But Republicans say Reid's plan amounts to an accounting gimmick. The war money is still needed to carry out planned troop withdrawals, Republicans said, and if the savings are shifted elsewhere, the U.S. would have to borrow the money needed to bring them home, driving up the nation's $16.4 trillion debt.
"Its the equivalent of me saying I want to buy a BMW. Tomorrow I don't buy it, and now I'm claiming I've made $50,000," said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "I don't think even all the Democrats will go for it."
But both parties are under pressure to come up with a solution to the sequester.
According to FlightStats.com, a global cancellation and delay tracker, there were more than 4,300 delayed flights by Tuesday evening and 315 canceled flights, the result of the Federal Aviation Administration implementing rolling furloughs of all employees, including air traffic controllers.
White House spokesman Jay Carney blamed Republicans for not backing earlier legislation that would have replaced the sequester with tax cuts and other spending reductions.
"The fact is Congress had an opportunity," Carney said. "But Republicans made a choice. And this is a result of a choice they made to embrace the sequester."
Republicans countered that Obama could have eased the pain of some cuts by giving agencies greater flexibility in deciding what should be cut, but he didn't.
"The president is the CEO of this country," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. "He can make this happen with the least amount of inconvenience to the American people."
Coburn, along with Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., introduced a bill that would give Obama the flexibility to decide where to make cuts.