All eyes on GOP House freshmen in budget impasse. Will they budge?

The Senate on Wednesday rejected both the big budget cuts of the House bill and the much smaller cuts of a Senate alternative. The ball is once again in the court of the 87 GOP House freshmen elected on last year's tea party wave.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan (l.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina arrive to vote on the spending bill in the Senate in Washington Wednesday. Both voted against the budget bill forwarded by Senate Democrats.

In votes that surprised no one, the Senate on Wednesday rejected first the House's proposed budget, which included $61 billion in cuts, and then its own alternative proposal, which included $6.5 billion in cuts.

In an ordinary year, perhaps, the next step would be to split the difference between the Senate and House budgets and move on. But this year – and this Congress – could hardly be described as ordinary.

As Congress nears a March 18 deadline to avert a government shutdown, the wild card remains the 87-member House GOP freshmen class, most of whom campaigned and won on a pledge to reverse course on budgets as usual and rein in government spending. And for now, they’re showing no signs of budging.

As a practical matter, the next move in the budget battle will likely take place back in the House, where Republican leaders are preparing a new stopgap measure to fund government past March 18. But the prospects for an actual budget look no better now than they did a week ago, when Congress gave itself two more weeks to try to resolve the impasse.

“The Senate isn’t giving us anything to negotiate,” said Rep. Tim Scott (R) of South Carolina, one of two freshmen on the House Republican leadership team. “We’ll stick with $61 billion at this point.”

GOP freshmen 'in a very good place'

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and majority leader Eric Cantor of Virginia have been meeting regularly with freshmen in the runup to what are expected to be tough votes on the budget and raising the debt limit later this spring. "The freshmen are in a very good place," says Boehner spokesman Michael Steel. "They understand and support the goal of cutting spending to help end that uncertainty that is preventing the private sector from creating jobs."

Congressman Scott was one of 93 Republicans who actually wanted deeper cuts than $61 million and voted on Feb. 19 for a failed amendment to reduce most discretionary spending to fiscal year 2006 levels.

Even the votes in the Senate Wednesday showed the influence of Republican freshmen on the budget debate. The House measure failed 44 to 56, with three tea party Republicans – Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and freshman Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky – voting with Democrats against the budget. The reason: They said the $61 billion in cuts was not deep enough.

The Senate's own plan, crafted by Democrats, fell 42 to 58. In that case, 10 Democrats voted with all Republicans on the grounds that the budget did not take the financial crisis seriously enough. (One independent who aligns himself with the Democrats, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, voted against the budget because it included no tax increases.)

'The backbone of the Republican Party'

Proposals by Senate Democrats to add measures that would increase government revenue are a nonstarter, Scott said. “Revenue enhancers are tax increases. Absolutely not,” he added.

Senator DeMint, an early supporter of the tea party movement, says the House GOP freshmen who campaigned on balancing the budget and cutting spending can’t accept cuts that don’t bring the budget back toward balance and significantly lower deficits. “They can’t take it home,” he said. “Those House freshmen are the backbone of the Republican Party right now.”

The same is true for Senator Paul. “I can’t support spending at this level when we’re faced with a $1.5 trillion deficit,” said he said in a statement after the vote. “I’ve consistently opposed adding to the deficit and will continue my opposition with my vote today.”

The number of Senate Democrats who defected to vote against the Senate budget was a surprise. They included Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall of Colorado, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, Carl Levin of Michigan, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Bill Nelson of Florida, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Jim Webb of Virginia. Many cited the need for stronger measures to deal with the nation’s deficits.

Where's the White House?

In a floor speech on Tuesday, freshman Senator Manchin signaled that Democrats would face defections in Wednesday's vote, calling for more leadership from the White House. "Why are we doing all this when the most powerful person in these negotiations, our president, has failed to lead this debate or offer a serious proposal for spending and cuts that he would be willing to fight for?" he said.

Vice President Joe Biden met with House and Senate leaders last Thursday to help negotiate the two-week stop-gap measure that expires on March 18. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the vice president has made phone calls to congressional leaders while on his current trip to Russia. “In this broader debate about budgets and spending, the president has been engaged since the State of the Union [address] with leaders from both parties,” he added.

In a floor speech before Wednesday's vote, Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York called for both sides to take a “deep, collective breath.” “We should all take stock of how the discussion up to now has become distorted and seek to reset the terms of the debate,” he said.

He suggested both sides needed to take a fresh look at the budget. “Rather than continuing the fixation on domestic discretionary cuts, which at the same time do huge damage and cut the deficit very little just because of the way they are spent, the next offer and counteroffer should include mandatory cuts and revenue raisers like oil royalties into the mix,” he added.

What next?

After the vote, Senate majority leader Harry Reid again called the House GOP plan “reckless” and a “nonstarter.” “Now that it has been defeated, Republicans have no excuses left,” he said in a statement. “It’s time for them to work with us … on a responsible, long-term solution that funds our government for the rest of the year, makes responsible cuts, and safeguards our fragile economic recovery."

The entire budget should be on the table, but that does not include Social Security, he added.

Meanwhile, work is expected to accelerate on efforts to find common ground on another continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government temporarily and avoid a shutdown. Speaking at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast for reporters Tuesday, House Republican whip Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California said the House could support a new temporary funding bill of up to a month, provided the extension also included significant cuts.

“Republicans will be prepared in the House to do another two-, three-, or four-week CR, but each time we are going to go at it, taking more bites, making sure we have cuts out there to make the economy stronger,” he said.

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