WASHINGTON (AP) - The Democratic-led Senate on Wednesday emphatically rejected a budget-slashing House spending bill as too draconian. It then immediately killed a rival Democratic plan that was derided by moderate Democrats as too timid in its drive to cut day-to-day agency budgets.
The votes to scuttle the competing measures were designed, ironically, to prompt progress. The idea was to show tea party-backed GOP conservatives in the House that they need to pare back their budget-cutting ambitions while at the same time demonstrating to Democratic liberals that they need to budge, too.
"It isn't often that two failed votes in the Senate could be called a breakthrough," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a speech at the liberal Center for American Progress think tank. "Once it is plain that both partys' opening bids in this budget debate are non-starters, we can finally get serious about sitting down and narrowing the huge gap that exists between the two sides."
Schumer, along with other top Senate Democrats, visited with Obama on Wednesday afternoon to plot strategy. The senator declined to comment afterward, other than to say he recognizes his party will have to move in the GOP's direction.
One reason is that Democratic moderates are agitating for further cuts to spending.
"I still think there are way too many people in denial around here about the nature of the problem and how serious it is," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who contended that the Democratic plan didn't go far enough. But she said the GOP measure cut too indiscriminately in its funding for infrastructure programs, education and research.
The GOP plan mustered 44 aye votes; the Democratic measure received just 42 votes, with 10 party members and liberal independent Bernard Sanders in opposition. Moderates Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Ben Nelson, D-Neb., Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and McCaskill - each face potentially difficult re-election bids next year - were among those opposed to the Democratic version.
At issue was legislation to fund the day-to-day operating budgets of every federal agency through the Sept. 30 end of the budget year and provide a $158 billion infusion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Republicans dominating the House, driven by a campaign promise to bring return domestic agency budgets to 2008, drove through last month a measure cutting more than $60 billion, imposing cuts of 13 percent, on average, to domestic agencies.
Senate Democrats had been slow to respond. Their alternative, unveiled just last Friday by Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, cuts about $12 billion below levels enacted for 2010.