Budget fight prefaces 2016 war


Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have armed themselves for the 2016 elections with votes on dozens of amendments to the GOP budget.

Votes to increase funding for the Pentagon, grant benefits to same-sex couples and recognize that climate change is real were among the measures designed for next year’s 30-second attack ads.


Democrats who hope to retake the Senate in 2016 were particularly on the march. They hoped to force Republican senators into as many tough votes as possible ahead of an election where the GOP will be defending 24 seats to the Democrats’ 10.  

“You and I could write the commercial today,” former House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) said of the amendments.

“Senator X voted against children and voted against senior citizens in granting them their Medicare benefits. He voted to completely kill Medicare as we know it today,” said Nussle, now president of the Credit Union National Association.

The Senate Republicans planning to mount presidential campaigns in 2016 also put down markers.

Here are some of the key issues that could reverberate in 2016.

Military spending

Two GOP presidential hopefuls, Sens. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulTrump faces new hit on deficit Overnight Defense: US shoots down Iranian drone | Pentagon sending 500 more troops to Saudi Arabia | Trump mulls Turkey sanctions | Trump seeks review of Pentagon cloud-computing contract Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Health care moves to center stage of Democratic primary fight | Sanders, Biden trade sharps jabs on Medicare for All | Senate to vote on 9/11 bill next week | Buttigieg pushes for cheaper insulin MORE (Ky.) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRepublican lawmakers ask Trump not to delay Pentagon cloud-computing contract Overnight Defense: US shoots down Iranian drone | Pentagon sending 500 more troops to Saudi Arabia | Trump mulls Turkey sanctions | Trump seeks review of Pentagon cloud-computing contract EU official in Canada says he feels 'at home' there because no one was shouting 'send him back' MORE (Fla.), offered proposals to bolster defense spending — both of which failed.

Both Paul and Rubio hope to tout themselves as defenders of the Pentagon.

Rubio’s measure would have increased the Pentagon’s budget next year to $661 billion. It won support from a number of vulnerable Republicans as well as Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzHow to reduce Europe's dependence on Russian energy Cruz calls for 'every penny' of El Chapo's criminal enterprise to be used for Trump's wall after sentencing Conservatives defend Chris Pratt for wearing 'Don't Tread On Me' T-shirt MORE (Texas) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamScarborough sounds alarm on political 'ethnic cleansing' after Trump rally The Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants GOP rattled by Trump rally MORE (R-S.C.), two other White House hopefuls.

Paul and several Republicans up in 2016 — Sens. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Mike Lee (Utah), Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanFighting the opioid epidemic: Congress can't just pass laws, but must also push to enforce them The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - House to vote to condemn Trump tweet Rising number of GOP lawmakers criticize Trump remarks about minority Dems MORE (Ohio), Tim Scott (S.C.) and David Vitter (La.) — rejected Rubio’s proposal.

Paul’s amendment would have boosted the Pentagon’s budget next year to $696 billion. Only Vitter joined Paul in supporting his measure.

Graham cast himself as a lawmaker willing to negotiate with Democrats to raise ceilings on Pentagon spending. He backed a successful amendment from Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) that would lift spending ceilings and pay for the increased funding with cuts to other programs.

“I think Graham, in particular, I think, will try and use his desire to increase defense spending as a way to attack his Republican opponents in the weeks and months to come,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who now works as director of the communications practice at QGA Public Affairs.  

Climate change

Graham was the only GOP presidential hopeful to vote for an amendment from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) that recognized that climate change is caused by human activity.

The measure calling for Congress to take action to cut carbon pollution failed in a 49-50 vote.

Democrats want to portray Republicans as out of step with science by highlighting the party’s skepticism toward climate change.

Graham appears wary of that risk, and has pressed his party to do some “soul-searching” on an issue that could hurt the GOP with voters. 

“What is the environmental platform of the Republican Party? I don't know, either,” he said last week at a Council on Foreign Relations event. “Can you say that climate change is a scientifically sound phenomenon? But can you reject the idea you have to destroy the economy to solve the problem, is sort of where I'll be taking this debate.”

In GOP primaries, bashing climate change and the science behind it can be popular, which creates a challenge for Graham and other GOP presidential hopefuls.

It’s also an issue for Republican senators who might have to move to the right to avoid a GOP primary and then shuffle back to the center for the general election.

Three Republicans running for reelection in states won by President Obama in 2008 and 2012 — Sens. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteKey endorsements: A who's who in early states Sinema, Gallagher fastest lawmakers in charity race New Hampshire senator to ask 2020 Dems to back repeal of state residency law MORE (N.H.), Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Portman — voted for Sanders’s amendment.

Paid sick leave

Democrats want to exploit a gender divide between the parties in 2016, particularly with the possibility that Hillary Clinton will lead their ticket.

One issue President Obama and Senate Democrats are increasingly pushing is required paid sick leave for employees, an issue the party believes will play well with women.

The Senate approved an amendment from Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) that would encourage employers to offer workers up to seven paid sick days, and it was backed by 11 of the 24 Republicans up for reelection next year.

Sens. Richard Burr (N.C.), John Hoeven (N.D.), Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Ron Johnson (Wis.), John McCain (Ariz.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), John Thune (S.D.), Pat Toomey (Pa.), Ayotte, Kirk and Portman all backed the measure.

Johnson and Toomey, two of the three GOP senators seen as the most vulnerable, even switched their votes from “no” to “yes” after the vote was called. They said their initial “no” votes were mistakes.

The four Republicans potentially going after the GOP presidential nomination all took a different calculation and voted against the proposal. 

Nine others facing reelection next year also voted against Murray’s proposal: Sens. Roy Blunt (Mo.), John Boozman (Ark.), Mike Crapo (Idaho), Jerry Moran (Kan.), Richard Shelby (Ala.), Grassley, Lee, Scott and Vitter.

Benefits to same-sex couples

Same-sex marriage is another issue that poses a problem for Republicans running to the right in a primary and to the center in a general election.

The dangers were highlighted the week after the budget, with the explosion in Indiana over a religious freedom law that critics said would discriminate against gays. While GOP presidential candidates voiced support for the law, GOP governors in Indiana and Arkansas asked their state legislatures to re-write the measures.

Democrats in the Senate successfully added an amendment to the budget from Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) that would permit legally married same-sex couples to receive equal access to Social Security and veterans’ benefits.

Ayotte, Burr, Kirk, Johnson, Murkowski and Portman all voted for the measure, while Cruz, Graham, Paul and Rubio voted against it.