By Mike Lillis - 03/20/11 09:17 PM EDT
Returning home for a 10-day recess, centrist Democrats say they're unconcerned with the party's split over recent proposals to slash federal spending this year.
Behind House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a number of Democratic leaders voted this month against two GOP spending bills to cut $10 billion before October. Republicans are hoping to use the votes as evidence that Democrats aren't serious about deficit reduction — an enormous issue on the campaign trail last year and one that's considered a key reason the Republicans won back the majority in November.
The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) this week already attacked one California Democrat, an opponent of the GOP cuts, for choosing "to help Nancy Pelosi protect the old status quo of limitless spending and job-crushing debt."
"It doesn't make any difference," said Rep. Collin Peterson, senior Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee.
The Minnesota Democrat, who voted for both short-term spending bills, said the current debate over cuts to discretionary spending is all but meaningless relative to the nation's $1.6 trillion deficit this year, not to mention the $14 trillion debt.
"You could eliminate all the discretionary spending and the entire military and you'd still have a deficit. What are we arguing about?" he asked. "Whether it's $5 billion or $60 billion, it's not going to solve the problem."
Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.), another party centrist, also downplayed the significance of the Democrats' opposition to the GOP cuts. He said his constituents don't have much interest in what Pelosi and other Democratic leaders are up to.
"They're concerned with what I do, and why I do it," said Lipinski, who voted in favor of the $10 billion in new cuts. "They don't concern themselves with leadership that much."
With many voters clamoring for immediate spending cuts, GOP leaders have proposed $61 billion in reductions before October, when the current fiscal year ends. But Democrats, including President Obama, have rejected that proposal, arguing it would kill jobs amid a fragile economic recovery.
The impasse has forced lawmakers to enact temporary spending bills to keep the government from shutting down. A two-week funding extension, including $4 billion in cuts, passed in the first week of March. It was followed this week by a three-week extension that imposes $6 billion in cuts.
The vote on the two-week extension split Democrats, 104-85, with Pelosi joining other liberal party leaders — including Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), George Miller (Calif.) and Rosa DeLauro (Conn.) — in opposition. A similar division (85-104) defined the three-week extension vote on Tuesday, with Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) joining Pelosi, Becerra and others in voting "no."
The liberal critics said the billions of dollars in cuts — although supported by Senate Democrats and the White House — would eliminate programs that are helping low-income Americans weather the aftermath of the recession.
Meanwhile, other Democratic leaders — including Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — supported both temporary extensions.
The divided Democrats got some cover from Republicans, who were also split over the temporary CRs. Fifty-four Republicans opposed their party's $6 billion in cuts Tuesday. Still, the reasons couldn’t have been more different. While Pelosi and the liberal critics said the cuts were too deep, the GOP opponents said they weren't deep enough.
Republican strategists have pounced on the Democratic "no" votes, saying they are indications party leaders aren't all on board when it comes reining in deficits. The NRCC issued a statement Tuesday slamming Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.) for choosing "to help Nancy Pelosi protect the old status quo of limitless spending and job-crushing debt."
“Despite our projected $1.65 trillion federal deficit, Jerry McNerney continues to dutifully follow along with Nancy Pelosi by opposing comprehensive plans to restore fiscal sanity and set the foundation for private sector job creation," NRCC Communications Director Paul Lindsay said in a statement.
A GOP aide told National Review that Republicans are hoping to trumpet the division between the Democrats' on the month's spending votes.
“President Obama is going to have to decide: Is he an Erskine Bowles Democrat or a Nancy Pelosi Democrat?” the aide said.
Democrats, meanwhile, have downplayed the significance of the recent division. They note that the party lined up unanimously against the $61 billion in cuts in the long-term bill. Also, Democrats didn't whip the two short-term extensions, instead allowing members to vote however they wanted.
"How the Democrats vote on this is not what we should be watching," Pelosi said before Tuesday's vote. "Where we go from here is what is going to be important."
The latest funding bill expires April 8, leaving lawmakers fewer than two weeks to hash out a long-term deal when they return from next week's recess on March 28.
Rep. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said Democratic opposition will be much more entrenched on the next vote if Republicans aren't willing to move significantly from their current proposal to slash $61 billion.
"You'll see greater unanimity on the next one," he said.
Hoyer has said he won't vote for another short-term extension, if it comes to that. It's unclear, however, how many Democrats who supported the first two temporary measures would follow the minority whip in that case.
Peterson, for instance, said he's prepared to support another short-term extension if it's needed to prevent a government shutdown.
"As long as they don't get too brazen, a lot of us with support it," Peterson said.
"It's the responsible thing to do. You've got to keep the government running."