By Erik Wasson - 02/08/12 10:15 AM EST
Anxious Republicans plan to use President Obama’s soon-to-be-released budget as a rallying cry to unify their party, which has been fractured over the last couple of months.
Democrats were largely seen as the political winners of December and January, as the GOP fumbled the payroll-tax issue and Obama’s approval ratings improved.
February, Republicans believe, will be different. They claim that Obama’s budget will return the nation’s focus to fiscal issues, a traditional GOP stronghold.
Meanwhile, Republicans have pounced.
“Majority Leader Reid has effectively declared both a Senate Democrat budget — and the president’s budget — dead on arrival,” Senate Budget Committee ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said at a Tuesday hearing. “If they do not take on a different approach, then the majority party is failing in the fundamental requirement of leadership.”
Clearly, Republicans want to talk about the budget, and not about the payroll-tax holiday, which had House Republicans firing salvos at their Senate counterparts late last year.
Sessions said contrasting a House-passed budget with a White House budget that fails to fix the nation’s fiscal woes delivers a “better message.”
“The payroll-tax debate was a distraction. … [M]any Republicans were sort of willing to go along with it to get on to the more important issue, the structural problems we have with our debt and spending,” Senate GOP campaign chief John Cornyn said Tuesday.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he thinks the release of the Obama budget will help the GOP this election year.
“A budget is sort of your heart and soul on display,” Graham said.
Centrist GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) agreed.
“Certainly it’s a coalescing force,” she said.
Republican strategist Ron Bonjean added: “After the payroll-tax debate, it’s going to be important for the House and Senate Republicans to thread the needle on politically sensitive issues like Medicare.”
Snowe, who is facing a primary challenge this year, was one of five Senate Republicans to vote against the House-passed budget last year, authored by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
“Obviously, the original Ryan plan had some serious issues,” she said. “I certainly believe in reforming the Medicare program in a way that would keep it intact. I have a very-high-percentage population that are seniors in Maine.”
Ryan might include in his new budget a modified Medicare plan that keeps traditional Medicare as an option. Snowe said she has not yet reviewed that plan, which Ryan crafted with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
Sen. John Thune (S.D.), a member of the Senate GOP leadership team, said he is still analyzing Ryan-Wyden, but acknowledged it has potential political advantages.
“From a political standpoint, the fact there is a marker out there with some bipartisan buy-in means it will be harder for Democrats to run away from the issue,” Thune said.
Such a move could get Republicans on both sides of the Capitol on the same budget page, a dynamic that eluded them in 2011.
Sessions said he expects Republicans to force a vote on the president’s budget if it is “not good.” No decision has been made on whether to try for a vote on whatever the GOP-controlled House passes, though Democrats could seek a roll call on that measure.
Last year, Obama’s fiscal 2012 budget was voted down by the Senate 97-0. Democrats rejected it, claiming Republicans were playing politics with the vote. But many Democrats on the left and right had major problems with Obama’s spending blueprint.
Congressional Republicans were also playing defense on the budget last year. Politically vulnerable House members came under relentless attack for backing Ryan’s budget, especially on the Medicare provisions.
Senate GOP leaders, eyeing control of the upper chamber in 2013 and viewing the Ryan legislation as politically radioactive, did not whip the Senate vote on Ryan’s plan.
Republican pollster Jon McHenry of North Star Opinion Research predicted that the Obama budget will hand fresh ammunition to the GOP.
“The big thing that the budget does is lay out specifics … ‘Everyone should pay their fair share’ sounds reasonable, while actually increasing people’s taxes is bad politics,” he said.
Democrats scoff at such assertions, claiming the budget face-off will starkly reveal that Republicans only want to help millionaires and billionaires. They add that the recent gaffes of GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney, including his comments on the poor and firing people, drive home that point.
But Thune said Democrats will struggle this budget season.
“I think a lot of their rank-and-file members know what a big mistake it is politically not to do a budget,” he said.
While Reid will not seek a floor vote, the Senate Budget Committee will try to pass a budget resolution.
“I’m not wedded to the process, but something should be done on the budget this year,” one senator, who requested anonymity, said.
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said he wants a budget resolution to come to the floor: “Coming from Alaska, most people think the budget is where the allocations are set. We should do one to give the American people more confidence.”