By David Lawder
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans in the Senate opted on Thursday not to challenge federal spending levels set in last summer's debt-limit deal, setting up a September clash with the House of Representatives that heightens chances of a government shutdown.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and nine other Republican senators voted to embrace a series of budget bills that would be in line with a $1.047 trillion discretionary spending level set by last year's Budget Control Act for fiscal 2013 starting on October 1.
Senate Democrats saw the move as a validation of the August deal that was meant to keep budgetary peace past this year's November elections and avoid the kinds of messy battles that brought the government to the brink of shutdown several times last year as spending authority expired.
"There's one thing that Senator McConnell and I agree on and that is that we wanted to do appropriations bills this year, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat. "We're hoping to get a lot of them done."
But McConnell's stance is at odds with his colleagues in the Republican-controlled House, which is starting to move spending bills this week that target a lower figure as sketched out in the Republican budget plan written by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan - $1.028 trillion.
The $19 billion reduction may seem small compared with the overall spending level, but it has provoked controversy, as House Republicans on Wednesday moved to slash social safety net programs such as food stamps and aid grants to states in order to make up the difference. In pursuing the additional cuts, Republicans are hoping to shield defense spending from automatic cuts in January.
The White House has warned House leaders that President Barack Obama will veto any appropriations bills that violate the spending levels set in the August agreement.
"Until the House of Representatives indicates that it will abide by last summer's agreement, the president will not be able to sign any appropriations bills," White House acting budget director Jeffrey Zients said in a letter to House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, a Republican.
Zients said the funding levels set in the Ryan budget "will mean deep and painful cuts in investments that America needs to succeed - in education and training, in research and development, and in clean energy and infrastructure - and will undermine future economic growth and degrade many of the basic government services on which the American people rely."
CARVING UP SMALLER PIE
Ten of the 12 Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee sided with Obama in approving subcommittee allocations to divide up the $1.047 trillion in spending authority with a 27-2 vote.
As part of that overall spending level, the panel also approved $51.86 billion in fiscal 2013 appropriations for commerce, justice and science-related agencies and $53.4 billion for transportation, housing and urban development agencies - a combined $4.8 billion reduction from the previous years' level
"It is a reasonable set of allocations, in my opinion, under the law and I intend to support them," said Senator Thad Cochran, the senior Republican on the appropriations panel.
McConnell still supports any effort to spend less than the $1.047 trillion cap, and his vote was aimed at preventing Democrats from going above that level, said his spokesman, Don Stewart.
"We'd like to get these bills into conference with the House so that the conversation on reducing spending can begin," Stewart added.
House Republicans so far have not shown any sign that they will shy away from another round of government shutdown threats, even though voters frown upon the brinksmanship, according to public opinion polls. Those Republicans have long viewed the debt deal number as a cap on spending, and say lawmakers are fee to cut spending further.
House and Senate Republicans also were at odds in recent months over extension of a payroll tax cut, resulting in a standoff that was widely viewed as a public relations fiasco for House Speaker John Boehner and his party.
But Rogers of the House Appropriations panel was steadfast in the face of the White House veto threat.
Jennifer Hing, his spokeswoman, said, "This year, when appropriations bills pass both the House and the Senate, the president can choose to sign them, or else he can choose to shut down the federal government, put the American people at risk, and imperil our economic recovery."
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)