Capitol Hill Bureau Chief
As Democrats and Republicans ready their talking points for the budget battles ahead in Washington, the standoff over federal spending is putting each party's moderates in a political squeeze as they try to navigate between making cuts voters say they want without cutting federal programs their constituents say they need.
The first test is expected Wednesday, when senators will vote on two seven-month spending bills -- one proposal each from Democrats and Republicans on funding the government through October 2011, the beginning of the next fiscal year.
The GOP bill, passed last month by the House, would slice $61 billion from the current budget through cuts to programs dear to Democrats' hearts, like implementation of the health care reform bill, Pell grants, early learning programs, nutrition for women and children, and funding for Planned Parenthood.
Sen. Richard Durbin, the Democratic whip in the Senate, predicted that the House-passed measure would be difficult for some Republicans in the Senate to embrace.
"It is a painful vote for those who still cling to the belief that they are moderate Republicans. I don't want to name names, but I can think of a half-dozen Republican senators who do not want to be on the record for cutting funding for Planned Parenthood," Durbin told Politics Daily. "They may not want to be on record for some of the environmental cuts there. Now they're stuck, take it or leave it, and I think they want to leave it."
Democrats will be watching several moderate Republicans they see as possible pick-offs in 2012, including Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Maine's Olympia Snowe and Richard Lugar of Indiana, to gauge their support for Republican cuts that Democrats call "draconian."
"The reckless Republican spending plan would cut 700,000 jobs across the country if these cuts are enacted into law," said Eric Schultz, communications director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
But the budget votes will present just as much danger for moderate Democrats, some of whom struggled Tuesday to justify the smaller cuts championed by their party's leadership at a time when independent voters insist the lawmakers were elected to cut government spending significantly.
Unlike the $61 billion in cuts proposed by Republicans, the Democratic proposal would trim $6.5 billion this year by eliminating earmarks and zeroing out funds for several highway projects and programs that Obama has agreed to end.
Republicans say they'll be watching a half-dozen Democratic incumbents who the GOP believes will be vulnerable for a Republican defeat, based in part on the recent spike in federal spending. At the top of the list are Democrats in states that President Obama lost during his 2008 campaign, including Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
"Spending is up 24 percent over the last four years, the debt is now over $14 trillion, and the jobs they promised if they passed the stimulus have not come to fruition," said Brian Walsh, communications director for the National Senatorial Campaign Committee. "We're seeing all this spending, all his debt, and no jobs."
On Tuesday, the looming budget votes had some usually loquacious senators short on words, scurrying out of the reach of reporters' shouted questions about which way they planned to vote.
"I just don't want to talk to you about it," Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said as she hopped into a senators-only elevator.
Sen. Ben Nelson, who is up for reelection in 2012, did talk Tuesday as he walked through a Capitol corridor surrounded by reporters, but he was mum on how he planned to vote.
"That's what I'll have to tell you later," Nelson said, putting the questions off until later.
But some moderate Democrats had made up their minds, even if it wasn't what their leaders wanted to hear.
Freshman Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) went to the Senate floor Tuesday morning to announce he would not vote for the Democrats' proposal, saying the $6.5 billion in cuts "doesn't nearly go far enough." But he also criticized the GOP plan, which "blindly hacks the budget," he said. But Manchin saved his harshest critique for Obama, who lost West Virginia by nearly 15 points in 2008. "He has failed to lead this debate," Manchin said.
The Senate will vote on the side-by-side proposals on Wednesday afternoon, when most senators said they believe both votes will fail.
"My guess is neither one of them will pass," said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). "Then it will be back to the negotiating table."