By Jay Heflin and Walter Alarkon - 07/17/10 04:00 PM EDT
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) has planted herself in the middle of a civil war between Republican and Democratic appropriators over spending levels.
Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee are refusing to vote for any appropriations measures that break the 2011 discretionary spending caps pushed by McCaskill and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).
McCaskill has pushed Democrats to back her and Sessions' full plan, which would lock in low levels of spending for the next three years. She told The Hill that it's a chance to demonstrate fiscal discipline.
"I think that some of my Democratic colleagues are being very short-sighted in their failure to support Sessions-McCaskill," she said in an interview. "Because once you get that in place, then all of a sudden, all of the talking points about runaway spending go away, because we're adhering to a cap in growth that the Republicans support."
The Sessions-McCaskill plan received broad support during a test vote earlier this year. Seventeen Democrats and one independent joined all 41 Republicans in an attempt to attach the proposal to a job-creation bill in March. The measure failed to get the necessary 60 votes when 41 Democrats, including most Democratic appropriators, voted against it.
Republicans and Democrats on the Appropriations panel have traditionally worked together.
The most recent spending measure to pass the Senate, a $59 billion supplemental bill with Afghanistan war funding and domestic disaster aid, was written in May by Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the committee's chairman, and Sen. Thad Cochran (Miss.), the committee's ranking Republican. (The House has passed its own version with additional fiscal aid to states, and the two bills have yet to be reconciled.)
"There's always been three parties in Washington — the Democrats, Republicans and appropriators — and the appropriators have always stuck together," McCaskill said. "Well, that fell apart this week."
A spokeswoman for McCaskill later told the The Hill that the senator thinks it’s “ultimately silly” to argue over the $6 billion difference in appropriations, but said she is still pushing to lock in the low levels of the McCaskill-Sessions plan.
McCaskill said it would be a "win-win" if appropriations talks fall apart and force a continuing resolution for 2011 that would extend last year's spending levels. That outcome would keep spending down and prevent senators from passing any earmark provisions that steer money to projects back home — a practice loathed by McCaskill.
She warned against pushing ahead with bigger spending increases, especially in an election year when polls show increased worry about the $13 trillion debt.
"Right now, in this climate, I don't think that would be a very good idea — not if anybody's paying attention," she said.
McCaskill said that committing to low spending levels would make it easier for Democrats to avoid being tagged as "tax-and-spend" legislators and allow them to attack Republicans for wanting to extend all of the Bush-era tax cuts, a move that would add to the $13 trillion debt.
“If we’re going to be successful, we’re going to need to be very clear that if these tax cuts were the key to the kingdom, we wouldn’t have lost 8 million jobs in the last 18 months,” McCaskill said.
The tax breaks — which were passed during President George W. Bush’s time in office — are scheduled to expire at year’s end. Democrats have pledged to extend them only for those making less than $200,000. Republicans have pounced on the issue in recent days, arguing that allowing tax cuts for the wealthy to expire will impede small business growth and drag down the economy.
Democrats argue that extending tax cuts for the wealthy will do little to stimulate the economy, using as evidence the Bush administration's job creation record. Net employment rose by just three million jobs during the Bush years, even though his tax cuts were enacted within months of him taking office, according to Labor Department numbers.
“I really think we need to just keep [our message] simple and say, ‘Why would we want to go back to economic policies that failed?” McCaskill said.