By Erik Wasson - 05/15/12 09:00 AM EDT
Senate Republicans and Democrats alike are poised to use budget votes as election-year ammunition.
Republican senators are expected to force a vote this week on President Obama’s fiscal 2013 budget plan, while Democrats are relishing a roll call on Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget blueprint.
GOP aides say that if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) tried to rally support for Obama’s budget, he could get a dozen yes votes at best.
That estimate may be low, though there is a clear contrast in how congressional Democrats dealt with Obama’s budget in 2009 and this year. Three years ago, the Democratic-led Senate passed Obama’s budget 55-43. Obama’s approval ratings were much higher at the time, which fostered strong Democratic unity on Capitol Hill.
Some centrist Democrats, including Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), have said they prefer a budget with deeper deficit cuts than Obama presented. Vulnerable Democratic senators are seen as unwilling to vote for the tax increases detailed in the White House budget.
Aides to several Democratic centrists were noncommittal Monday on how their bosses would vote if the Obama budget comes up.
Democrats have previously used an exit ramp from the GOP trap, concluding that their best move is to dismiss the vote as a gimmick, and to vote no en masse.
Last May, Obama’s budget was voted down, 0-97. Democrats noted they could vote no after Obama delivered an April speech calling for deeper deficit reduction than he had presented two months earlier in his budget.
This year, Obama is sticking by his budget, so Democrats are embracing another reason to vote it down.
The White House moved Monday to free Democrats to vote no by saying the legislation embodying Obama’s budget is “different” because it doesn’t contain identical policy language.
That measure was introduced by Senate Budget Committee ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).
In March, the Republican-led House rejected a similar attempt by Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), 0-414.
“As with the Mulvaney resolution in the House, the resolution introduced by Sen. Sessions is not the president’s budget,” White House budget office spokesman Kenneth Baer said in an email. “This is just a gimmick the Republicans are putting forward to distract from what the Ryan-Republican budget does: protects massive tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires while making the middle class and seniors pay.”
Last year’s Ryan budget was voted down in the Senate, 40-57. The vote put Senate GOP leaders in an awkward position; polls showed the budget popular with the conservative base, but not with independents. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) backed the measure, but he and his lieutenants did not whip the vote.
Five Republicans rejected it: Sens. Scott Brown (Mass.), Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Rand Paul (Ky.). Paul opposed the House-passed budget because it did not cut enough spending, while the four centrists rejected it for being too sweeping.
This year, Ryan worked with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on the Medicare reform provisions in the budget. Wyden’s effort sparked grumbling from some on the left who said the Oregon senator had given political cover to Republicans.
Wyden defended his partnership with Ryan in an interview with The Hill earlier this year, adding that he is opposed to Ryan’s overall budget.
The Medicare changes, however, could attract a few more votes from GOP centrists.
Many on Capitol Hill will be closely watching Sen. Dean Heller’s (R-Nev.) position on the Ryan plan. Heller, in a tough election battle with Rep. Shelley Berkley (D) in Reid’s home state, backed Ryan’s blueprint in 2011.
Last month, he told the Las Vegas Sun that he was undecided on Ryan’s new plan.
Democrats say Republicans are playing politics by seeking the budget votes, stressing they want to address other matters.
“Rather than focusing on jobs, Tea Party Republicans in the Senate want to force votes on a bunch of plans to end Medicare as we know it. The only difference among their plans is whether they get rid of Medicare in two years or 10. All of them would raise interest rates on student loans; all of them would give huge tax breaks to millionaires; but none of them will pass,” Senate Democratic spokesman Brian Fallon said.
Baer, meanwhile, defended the contents of the Obama budget.
“The president put forward a balanced approach that achieves over $4 trillion in deficit reduction by asking the wealthiest to pay their fair share while protecting our middle class, seniors and those programs that are vital to our economic recovery,” he said.
A GOP aide said the White House argument on the Sessions bill is bogus. The staffer argued that whenever a budget proposal is put into legislative language, it only contains the yearly spending totals, not the entire accompanying policy language.
A Democratic aide said the Sessions measure only represents “parts” of Obama’s budget.
“It is the president’s budget. Voting for it is a vote for the president’s budget. There are not shades of interpretation,” the Republican aide countered. “They are doing this because members don’t want to be on the record voting for a plan that accumulates $11 trillion in debt, that has that much spending and that much in taxes.”
GOP aides said it is very likely the vote will come on Thursday once a bill reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank is dealt with.
Reid could try to block a vote on the Obama budget, but the GOP believes the Nevada Democrat views this as more embarrassing than simply holding the vote.
Under an untested provision of budget law, any member can offer any budget resolution for a vote now that the Budget Committee has failed to report one to the floor. Reid would have to go down to the floor to try to block a member from offering the budget.
His blocking move could be overturned by the Senate parliamentarian, and a vote would then happen anyway.
The Senate will likely hold votes on other budgets crafted by Sens. Paul, Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah).
Lee’s budget, introduced last week, embodies budget proposals from the Heritage Foundation. It calls for a 25 percent flat income tax rate, transforms Social Security into a type of insurance and contains a Medicare premium support option. It would balance the budget by 2017 by cutting spending by $7 trillion.