WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans killed a $54 billion measure for transportation, housing and community development grants Thursday because it exceeded the spending limits required under automatic budget cuts that are the product of Washington's failure to deal with its fiscal problems.
The bill fell six votes short of the 60 required to overcome a GOP filibuster. The vote was a setback for majority Democrats seeking to protect money for road and bridge repairs and housing vouchers for the poor.
Republicans did not want to retreat from a deficit-cutting deal two years ago that promised $2.1 trillion in deficit cuts over 10 years. Those automatic cuts, which total $1.2 trillion through 2021, are the result of the government's inability to follow up on that deal.
"If we ... move forward, it will be widely viewed throughout the country that we are walking away from a commitment we made on a bipartisan basis, that the president signed just two years ago, that we would reduce spending by this amount of money," said Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
So Congress returns to the drawing board on the budget as lawmakers prepare for their five-week summer break. The new budget year begins on Oct. 1 and it'll take a temporary bill to prevent a government shutdown.
The Senate vote came a day after far more austere companion legislation was pulled from House consideration, with speculation that GOP leaders lacked the votes to pass it.
"The numbers in the House bill were not realistic," said GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a main player on the Senate legislation and the only Republican to support moving ahead with it. "The numbers in our bill are not unrealistic."
The likely failure of both measures illustrates the shortcomings of the budget strategies by Republicans who run the House and Democrats who are in charge of the Senate. At issue are the 12 spending bills passed each year by Congress for the day-to-day working of the government.
Democrats chose the transportation measure as their first attempt to pass an appropriations bill, because of its money for popular programs such as road and bridge projects and community development block grants that boost local economies.
"We had a bill that would have put people to work, fixed bridges and highways, improved public safety," said Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who leads the Senate Appropriations Committee. "It would have gotten America moving. It would have gotten America working."
Without a broader budget agreement in place, the House and Senate have tried to advance starkly different versions of the 12 annual appropriations bills. The result: little success in the House, virtually none in the Senate.
The Senate measures reflect higher budget levels than originally called for in the deal two years ago. It called for automatic cuts, known as sequestration, if lawmakers could not pass follow-up deficit cuts.
House bills have stuck to those sequestration levels, which are more than $90 billion lower than the Senate's. That's a huge difference in the approximately $1 trillion budget for daily agency operations.
The problem will confront lawmakers when they return to the Capitol in September.
GOP leaders tried to set up a budget showdown earlier because of the need to pass legislation increasing the government's $16.7 trillion borrowing cap. But the government's better-than-expected financial performance has delayed that fight.
President Barack Obama says he won't negotiate over the debt limit like he did two years ago, a promise he repeated to congressional allies in private meetings Wednesday on Capitol Hill.
The uncertainty on the transportation measures reflects broader budget dysfunction. All sides want to reverse the crippling sequestration cuts, but a partisan impasse shows no sign of breaking.
Obama and Democrats are pressing for tax increases, while Republicans are demanding cuts to programs such as Medicare and food stamps.
Cuts in the House transportation bill grew because of Republican move to trim an additional $40 billion-plus from domestic programs and transfer the money to the Pentagon. That left the bill $10 billion below the Senate's.
The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said halting debate reflected a failure of Republicans to follow up on their promises.
"The House, Senate and White House must come together as soon as possible on a comprehensive compromise that repeals sequestration, takes the nation off this lurching path from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis, reduces our deficits and debt, and provides a realistic topline discretionary spending level to fund the government in a responsible — and attainable — way," Rogers said.
The White House cited what it said was the shortcomings of the GOP budget strategy.
"What we learned yesterday is substantively, people cannot accept the depth of these cuts," White House budget director Sylvia Burwell told reporters Thursday.