WASHINGTON -- The Democratic-led Senate yesterday emphatically rejected a budget-slashing House spending bill as too draconian. It then immediately killed a rival Democratic plan that was derided by moderate Democrats as too timid in its drive to cut day-to-day agency budgets.
The votes to scuttle the competing measures were designed, ironically, to prompt progress. The idea was to show tea-party-backed GOP conservatives in the House that they need to pare back their budget-cutting ambitions while at the same time demonstrating to Democratic liberals that they need to budge, too.
"It isn't often that two failed votes in the Senate could be called a breakthrough," Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a speech at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. "Once it is plain that both parties' opening bids in this budget debate are nonstarters, we can finally get serious about sitting down and narrowing the huge gap that exists between the two sides."
Schumer, along with other top Senate Democrats, visited with President Barack Obama yesterday afternoon to plot strategy. The senator declined to comment afterward, other than to say he recognizes his party will have to move in the GOP's direction.
One reason is that Democratic moderates are agitating for further cuts to spending.
"I still think there are way too many people in denial around here about the nature of the problem and how serious it is," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who contended that the Democratic plan didn't go far enough. But she said the GOP measure cut too indiscriminately in its funding for infrastructure programs, education and research.
The GOP plan mustered 44 aye votes, the Democratic measure just 42, with 10 party members and liberal independent Bernard Sanders in opposition. Moderates Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and McCaskill -- each face potentially difficult re-election bids next year -- were among those opposed to the Democratic version.
At issue was legislation to fund the day-to-day operating budgets of every federal agency through the end of the budget year, Sept. 30, and provide a $158-billion infusion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Last month, Republicans dominating the House, driven by a campaign promise to return domestic agency budgets back to 2008 levels, drove through a measure cutting more than $60 billion, imposing cuts of 13 percent, on average, to domestic agencies.