Conceding defeat this time, Senate Dems pledge to win next round

Senate Democrats conceded Tuesday that House Republicans won round one of the budget fight, but they are vowing a bigger battle later this month. 

Anticipating that showdown, Senate Democratic leaders are scrambling to unify their caucus as their colleagues express starkly different opinions on the best strategy to pursue.

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Centrists who are facing tough reelections in Republican-leaning states want to support additional spending cuts for the rest of the fiscal year. Some are more willing to accept reductions to social programs than to defense and agriculture programs.

Disappointed and boxed-in Democratic senators suggested Tuesday they would win — next time. 

“The real battle is to come with the next, the long-term [spending resolution], the next time. That’s going to be the battleground,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee with jurisdiction over education, labor and health programs. 

 A Democratic senator who attended a Tuesday conference lunch said colleagues “vented” over cuts in the House bill. 

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) bashed Republican calls to cut the women, infants, children (WIC) health and nutrition program, according to a Democratic source familiar with the closed-door discussion. She distributed fliers to other Democratic senators that listed arguments against the GOP proposal. The WIC cuts are not in the stopgap measure approved by the House on Tuesday.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) spoke out against cuts to Planned Parenthood and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) argued against cuts to the Army Corps of Engineers that she said would stall crucial water projects in California and around the country, according to a Democratic source. 

But not all Democrats were that upset with having to accept the latest House GOP-proposed cuts. 

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who will likely face a tough reelection race in 2012, said she “does not have a problem” with the two-week spending bill the House passed with a large bipartisan majority on Tuesday. 

McCaskill said she would like to see additional cuts to the 2011 budget but she does not embrace the  $61 billion in spending reductions the House passed last month. 

“It has to be significant cuts and it has to reflect the priorities we think are important,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who faces a tough race in 2012. She said she “does not have a problem” with the House GOP’s two-week spending plan.

McCaskill said the spending freeze that Democratic leaders accepted, which would save $41 billion compared to President Obama’s budget for 2011, is a “cut in growth.”

She said Democrats now need to look at “real cuts.”

Given the views of McCaskill and other centrists, liberals worry that Democratic leaders will roll over and accept another deal on Republican terms in an attempt to bolster the reelection chances of vulnerable incumbents in red states. 

They fear a reprise of last December when Obama and Republican leaders agreed to a tax-cut deal that was widely panned by the left. 

By and large, GOP leaders want to keep negotiating short-term deals as part of a strategy to put pressure on Democrats and win concessions such as they did this week. 

Senate Democrats, in contrast, said Tuesday they want to pass a long-term resolution to fund the federal government for the rest of fiscal 2011 so they can focus on other legislation such as patent reform, an energy bill and their jobs agenda. 

Democrats are accepting the two-week stopgap spending measure because they feel pressured to avoid a government shutdown. 

“I don’t like this death by 1,000 cuts, but I also don’t want a government shutdown,” said Mikulski, a senior member of the Appropriations panel. 

“These are huge cuts,” said Feinstein, chairwoman of the Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Energy.

“The Army Corps and bureau is cut by $554 million, so what I’ve wanted to do is add some back to it,” Feinstein said of the House GOP’s two-week spending measure. 

But Feinstein conceded that she may vote for it anyway.

Erik Wasson contributed to this article.

This story was posted at 6:05 a.m. and updated at 9:57 a.m.