Dems seek budget vote game change

Senate Democrats and Republicans will face off Tuesday on critical votes that will be a key marker on the budget negotiations aimed at averting a government shutdown. 

Leaders in the chamber are expected to hold a vote Tuesday on a House-passed Republican proposal to cut $57 billion from 2010 spending levels, as well as a Democratic alternative that would cut $6.5 billion.

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After losing round one of the budget battle last week, Democrats are hoping that the votes will represent a turning point in the budget talks. The competing bills have little chance of attracting the necessary 60 votes for passage, but Democrats are hopeful they’ll get more yes votes than the GOP. If that happens, Democrats argue, Republicans need to come closer to their budget-cutting number. 

Both sides have targeted centrists in the other party to encourage defections. But leaders are playing defense as well, nervous about mavericks in their own caucuses who could give rhetorical ammunition to the enemy. 

“It’s kind of like a game of chicken, and the question is which side is more united and determined,” said Bruce Cain, director of the University of California Washington Center.

Cain said the test votes are “going to be important.” 

“You can imagine there will be real pressure on Democrats running in more centrist states,” he added. 

William Hoagland, a former senior aide to ex-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), said the votes would shape the negotiations leading up to the expiration of the current government funding resolution on March 18. 

“I think it’s critical that [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid [D-Nev.] and [Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell [R-Ky.] hold both their caucuses on those initial votes to prove to each side that neither one has the answer to force the negotiation that’s going forward,” he said.

Aides to Reid and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) met with about 40 labor and liberal groups Monday to encourage them to wage a grassroots campaign against the House proposal, according to sources familiar with the meeting. 

The most damaging outcome for Democratic leaders and the White House would be if Democratic centrists voted for the House measure,  which Reid has called “draconian” and has triggered a veto threat from President Obama.

Republican leaders would receive a painful blow if centrists from Maine, Massachusetts, Illinois and/or Alaska rejected the House package of spending cuts as too extreme or supported the Democratic alternative that the GOP has called insufficient. 

It is unlikely that Susan Collins (R-Maine), Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) or Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) will support the Democratic plan, but they might balk at the House GOP proposal. 

Brown has criticized the House’s call to cut the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and Murkowski has raised similar concerns. 

“It’s important to look critically at all of them,” Murkowski said of the House cuts, noting that LIHEAP program is important in frigid Alaska. 

Liberal and labor groups have targeted those four senators and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) in the grassroots campaign they discussed with Democratic leadership staff. Strategists say Snowe may be a lost cause because she is expected to face a Tea Party-backed challenger in 2012 and is working to shore up her right flank. 

Yet controversial amendments attached to the House bill, which includes restrictions on funding for Planned Parenthood, could factor into the votes of Snowe, Collins, Brown and Kirk. All four senators support abortion rights. 

 Conservative Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has called for $500 billion in cuts, might also vote no. 

Democratic leaders are confident the vast majority of their caucus will vote against the House proposal, which eliminates funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and makes deep cuts in assistance to low-income mothers and young children. 

Their biggest concerns are Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who face tough reelections in states Obama lost in 2008. 

Aides for Manchin and Nelson declined to state their bosses’s position on the House spending bill or the Democratic alternative. 

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who has emerged as the most outspoken proponent of spending cuts in her caucus, has indicated she will not support the Republican bill. 

But Democratic leadership aides are worried she might not vote for Inouye’s Democratic alternative because it does not go far enough. 

“I think we need to look at real cuts, but not the way the House did it,” McCaskill said last week. 

Maria Speiser, McCaskill’s spokeswoman, told The Hill, “She believes that the Dem alternative does not cut enough, but has not made a final decision on how she will vote on it.”

A senior Democratic aide said, “If we have members that don’t vote for the Democratic alternative because they want to go higher in cuts, that’s OK because we said all along that we were willing to go with deeper cuts, so that’s consistent.” 

The staffer said if Republican centrists defect on the House proposal, it “shows divisions that they’ve tried to disguise so far.” 

It would show that GOP centrists “agree with us that the House measure is too extreme and needs to have changes,” said the aide. 

McConnell has been predicting unity that could be elusive on Tuesday. During an appearance on Laura Ingraham’s radio show last month, McConnell predicted that Senate Republicans would coalesce behind the House bill. 

A senior GOP aide said McCaskill and other Democratic centrists would open themselves to charges of hypocrisy if they vote against significant spending cuts. 

“[McCaskill] will be the senior queen of hypocrisy in the entire country if she votes against cutting spending,” said the GOP aide. “She will have a very difficult time.”

Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist who worked in the Clinton White House, said the test votes “play a pretty important role in trying to define the two parties in the terms of the negotiation.”

 He said he is “less worried about Democratic defections because the president is a Democrat.”

Obama’s veto power would serve as a backstop to shore up Democratic senators who might be nervous about reelection, Begala added.