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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.

“Let’s be honest here, $60 billion? Come on. It is time for drastic action,” Varley said. “And we’re still not getting it.”

A handful of vulnerable Democratic moderates, meanwhile, bolted from their leadership alternative, which cut about $10 billion, although no Democrat backed the House bill. The Democratic plan garnered just 42 votes, less than the 44 for the House bill, even though Democrats have a 53-47 majority.

Several moderate Democrats up for re-election in 2012, starting with Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) on Tuesday and joined by Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Claire McCaskill (Mo.) on Wednesday, went to the floor to announce their plans to vote against both parties’ blueprints — talking up the need for cuts but declaring their independence from their own party as well. Other Democrats up in 2012 also voting “no” on the Democratic blueprint included Sens. Herb Kohl (Wis.) and Bill Nelson (Fla.).

“Democrats did nothing to attract Republicans and Republicans did nothing to attract Democrats,” Ben Nelson said. “Now it’s time to get serious.”

He dismissed the idea that Wednesday’s votes amount to much politically. “Who would pay attention to either one of these bills?” he asked. “Neither of them are serious.”

McCaskill said the Democratic Party faces a “gut check” moment on cutting spending and said she doesn’t worry about what the Republican attacks look like. “No matter how I vote, they’re going to go after me,” she said.

Indeed, they did, with the National Republican Senatorial Committee blasting her for opposing the House cuts and a likely Republican challenger using her votes to send out a fundraising appeal.

“If every Missouri family and small business took the same approach to spending and debt that Claire McCaskill takes with spending their tax dollars, every single one of them would be bankrupt and destitute,” said NRSC spokesman Chris Bond.

It was the same on the other side, where the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee went after vulnerable Republicans such as Brown.

“We knew that Scott Brown had become a tool of the Republican establishment in Washington but we did not know he’d ever vote against Massachusetts jobs,” DSCC spokesman Eric Schultz said. “It is now official: Scott Brown supports the extremists in his party over the people of Massachusetts. He will be explaining today’s vote for the next 19 months.”

But neither of the campaign committees had paid attack ads planned around the votes — holding their fire for even bigger fights yet to come.

Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, said Wednesday’s votes may have been the most significant of the new Congress, but they were the first of three markers likely to play strongly in 2012. The next will be the vote for the fiscal 2012 federal budget. And “the mother of all battles” will be the vote to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, he added.

The club didn’t plan any paid advertising around Wednesday’s votes, but it will likely run an “issue advocacy” campaign around the debt ceiling debate, according to Chocola.

“I think this is a balancing act,” he said of the political posturing at play Wednesday. “And it won’t be the last act. They’ll have to deal with this for the entire session.”

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