WASHINGTON — 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.
White House budget director Jacob Lew said that the votes should turn a page and that talks between the administration and Republicans are likely to become more productive. The negotiators are unlikely to meet a March 18 deadline, which means another stopgap budget extension would be required to keep the government from shutting down.
"We want to come to a reasonable outcome," Lew said. "We've made it clear that that's not the end, that there are more savings. But we've also said that there's a line beyond which we can't go."
Top Senate Democrats visited with Obama on Wednesday afternoon to plot strategy. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a participant, 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 facing 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.