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Senate Republicans on Wednesday openly mocked a Democratic nonbinding resolution on the deficit, deriding it as "cynical," "political" and even "meaningless." But behind closed doors, rank-and-file Members plotted to support open debate of the bill in order to play much the same game.
In their weekly caucus meeting, Republicans discussed whether to support the majority's push to bring up a vaguely worded Sense of the Senate resolution, which states that millionaires should make "a more meaningful contribution to the deficit reduction effort." For GOP Senators, it might be a good political hedge — voting to talk about the budget and deficit before ultimately voting against the Democratic message of "shared sacrifice" from America's wealthiest.
The Senate is expected to vote today on whether to filibuster a motion to proceed to the measure, and 60 votes would be needed to overcome that hurdle.
If Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) can agree to allow a handful of amendments, both sides are likely to walk away feeling like they've won a messaging battle, even though they are unlikely to approve anything that would actually change tax or budget policy.
"I think we should have a debate," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said of moving forward with the resolution, adding there's "broad" support for doing so among his caucus. "There's substantive issues beyond a Sense of the Senate we ought to be talking about."
Graham said that Republicans want to talk about "real amendments" that would have the force of law, and within the GOP meeting Wednesday afternoon, many familiar provisions were floated among Members for potential votes.
Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) declined to comment specifically on what he and his colleagues discussed, but he shed light on measures that McConnell might consider while negotiating with Reid on an agreement to proceed, including spending and budget proposals from GOP Sens. Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Johnny Isakson (Ga.).
"The president has not made his proposal. We have made ours, and we're looking for any forum that will give us a chance to do that — whether it's Sen. Corker's CAP Act ... whether it's a way to deal with entitlements, whether it's Sen. Isakson's two-year budget amendment — all of those ideas need serious consideration by the Senate," Alexander said in a brief interview. "To suggest trivial ideas to deal with a serious proposal is very disappointing, and we're going to counter that by making serious proposals of our own."
Republican aides point to a measure such as Corker's CAP Act, which has a bipartisan co-sponsor in Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. That bill would set hard limits on discretionary spending and might prove to be an amendment that Reid will find difficult to refuse.
Democrats, however, don't want to let Republicans off that easy.
The purpose of the Sense of the Senate resolution for them is twofold: provide a vehicle for discussing the budget debate that forced the Senate to cancel its July Fourth recess and pin the Republicans as supportive of millionaires and billionaires at the expense of the burgeoning federal debt and middle-class Americans.
As top leaders meet at the White House with President Barack Obama today, the Senate's rank and file will wrangle for the upper hand in sending a message down Pennsylvania Avenue and influencing the debate.
"We're not going to let them load this down with messaging amendments," Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson said. "We think it's sad that Republicans are scared to vote on the simple proposition that millionaires and billionaires should contribute in a balanced approach to deficit reduction."
Democratic aides insist they've already held votes on "real" proposals, pointing to their repeated attempts to eliminate gas, oil and ethanol tax subsidies. And while some inside the Capitol have grumbled privately about the weakness of the nonbinding measure — it does not target any specific tax provision, such as breaks for corporate jets — it's broad enough to garner support of the entire Democratic caucus.
With several Democrats, such as Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Joe Manchin
(W.Va.), expressing reservations about increasing revenues as part of any debt and deficit deal, a simple message that unites the party was important for Reid to craft, Democrats said.
"That's probably the reason it was written the way it was," one Democratic aide suggested. "Some people who are in cycle would be inclined to support the continuation of certain tax cuts for their specific electoral reasons."
Democrats view today's vote as a win-win for the party: Either Republicans join Democrats in debating theoretical budget solutions on the floor or they decline to do so and provide fodder for 30-second ad spots in the next election.
But as the clock winds down on the budget debate, and Congress hurtles toward the Treasury Department's Aug. 2 deadline to raise the debt limit, Republicans don't seem frightened by the prospect of campaign commercials.
National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) scoffed at the idea that Members were spending their time on a nonbinding "phony proposal that's not intended to do something" and dismissed Democrats for trying to demagogue the issue, even as his own party was planning to counter with partisan votes that effectively would achieve the same means.
"You mean it's meaningless?" Cornyn teased reporters Wednesday. "I prefer to see something that's actually meaningful and not meaningless. A Sense of the Senate, as you know, doesn't change anything. And so I think it's just kind of a cynical move."