Sen. Manchin breaks with Democratic leaders, backs strict spending caps

Freshman Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) on Tuesday announced his support for strict spending caps, which put him at odds with his party's leadership and President Obama. 

Manchin told an audience in South Charleston, W.Va., he would endorse the "CAP Act," which sets a tighter spending limit than what the president's budget calls for, as well as a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.

The senator suggested the legislation could help Republicans and Democrats agree to a deal to raise the nation's $14.3 trillion debt ceiling. 

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"Today, I will be announcing my support for two proposals that I believe provide a good starting point and framework from which we can move forward," he said, according to excerpts of his remarks released by his office. "But let me be also clear — one of my top priorities will be to make sure that whatever final debt-fix emerges, it will keep our promises to our seniors by protecting Social Security and Medicare. I believe we can do this and cut our debt and deficits over time."

The CAP Act, sponsored by Republican Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), would cap federal spending at 20.6 percent of gross national product after 10 years. 

Members of both parties are looking for ways to reduce spending as they prepare for a vote in a matter of months on raising the debt ceiling. While it is difficult to see Congress avoiding a vote to raise the ceiling, polls show it will be an unpopular move with voters.

Manchin emphasized that his support for the plans are a starting point for a broader negotiation on spending. 

"In the coming weeks, I will work with my colleagues to improve these ideas and to ensure that we can agree on responsible cuts that do not threaten our commitments to seniors and our most vulnerable," he said.

Manchin has already indicated he won't support a debt-limit increase unless it is tied to a long-term deficit-reduction plan, and his comments Tuesday shine more light on how leaders might obtain his support for a plan.  

Several Republican senators have warned they will not support raising the debt ceiling without significant spending reforms, but Manchin's move underlines the fact that it is a difficult vote for many Democratic senators, as well. 

Democrats hold a 53-47 seat edge in the Senate but face a tough challenge in preserving that majority in the 2012 election, when they must defend several seats held in states lost by President Obama in 2008.

The speech is a part of Manchin's "Commonsense Solutions week," in which he's expected to reveal more of his preferred policies.  

During his campaign in 2010 and his short time in the Senate, Manchin has repeatedly indicated he is willing to break with party leaders: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said he prefers a "clean" vote on whether to raise the debt ceiling.

Lawmakers are expected to intensify talks on a deal to raise the debt ceiling when they return  next week from recess. The United States is expected to hit its $14.3 trillion debt limit around May 16, and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has said failing to raise it would be "catastrophic" for the global economy. But Republicans and some Democrats have indicated their support depends on whether fiscal reforms are attached. 

Geithner has said Treasury could take various actions so the debt limit does not have to be raised until July. This means that, in practice, lawmakers are working against a deadline of the July 4 recess. 

This story was posted at 6:05 a.m. and last updated at 10:33 a.m.

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