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Senate Votes Put 2012 Politics in Spotlight

Tom Williams/Roll Call
Sen. Olympia Snowe voted for the House Republican plan cutting $61 billion in spending to make a statement on the need for belt-tightening, she said, even though it includes policy riders and cuts she opposes.

A fix for the nation’s spending woes may not have been decided Wednesday afternoon, but in what may be the most consequential clash so far this Congress, vulnerable Senators finally had to start taking sides.

Their votes on Republican and Democratic proposals for spending cuts were being closely watched by both parties’ campaign committees, a host of powerful interest groups and potential challengers.

“Everything is viewed through that prism unfortunately,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who faces a potential primary challenge as well as Democrats looking to portray her as moving to the right to appease the tea party. Snowe voted for the House Republican plan cutting $61 billion in spending to make a statement on the need for belt-tightening, she said, even though it includes policy riders and cuts she opposes.

“I’ve always been strong on fiscal issues,” she said, adding that she would have preferred to avoid the partisan standoff and to have the right to offer amendments.

But Wednesday’s vote, according to a Maine Democrat considering challenging Snowe, may have begun to redefine a Republican long-respected by Mainers on the right and left for her moderate positions.

“It might be a redefinition at this stage in the game,” Rosa Scarcelli, a former Maine gubernatorial candidate, said shortly before the vote.

Scarcelli has previously said that her decision to run would be driven in part by whether Snowe shifts dramatically to the right ahead of a primary. She acknowledged that Snowe faces a difficult road no matter how she votes.

“I do think there will be a recognition within her party as to how she votes, and likewise Democrats and independents will be paying close attention,” she said.

Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), who is likewise caught between the tea party and his state’s liberal bent, also backed the GOP plan after keeping mum beforehand, saying in a statement that he doesn’t like many pieces of the House bill but wants to cut the deficit, which the White House projects will hit $1.65 trillion this year.

His vote may help start to repair his strained relations with tea party supporters, said Christen Varley, leader of the Greater Boston Tea Party.

“We love the idea of him being independent, but independence can only go so far to excuse bad votes,” Varley said when Brown’s intentions were unknown just before the vote. “We’re in the hole. We’re broke. There are tough choices to make.”

Tea party criticism of Brown has led to speculation that he could face a primary challenger, but one has yet to emerge. Varley suggested, however, that Massachusetts conservatives hardly felt the heavy lifting was done.

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