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Senators Frame Spending Debate as Shutdown Vs. Economic Disaster

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Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander said the GOP’s goal is not simply to make the case for smaller government, but to explain its benefits.

Senate Democrats and Republicans took home the competing messages of government shutdown and economic collapse for the Presidents Day recess, setting the stage for an epic fight over a House-passed continuing resolution when they return next week.

The parties’ chief messaging strategists, Democratic Policy and Communications Center Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), armed Senators with talking points as they departed Capitol Hill on Thursday evening. Senators will spend the recess building support for their starkly opposing positions on the continuing resolution to fund the government from March 4 through Sept. 30.

The legislation, which the House passed 235-189 early Saturday morning, would cut spending by more than $100 billion below President Barack Obama’s 2011 request, including funds for many programs that have long been untouchable.

The Senate’s Democratic majority regards the proposal as essentially dead on arrival and is warning that Republicans are risking a government shutdown. The continuing resolution that is currently keeping the government running expires March 4, and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Thursday that he would not move another stopgap measure at current spending levels if the House and Senate can’t agree in time.

Republicans are quick to note that they are not advocating for a shutdown. Their focus is on the nation’s 9 percent unemployment rate, and they are seeking to associate reductions in federal spending, debt and the deficit with the private sector’s ability to create jobs. Alexander said the GOP’s goal is not simply to make the case for smaller government, but to explain its benefits.

“Our goal is to help the American people understand what we think they already know, which is that this time, it’s different,” the Tennessee Republican said. “We’re collecting $2.2 trillion per year for the federal government and we’re spending $3.7 trillion, and we have to take steps to reduce that debt if we want to start creating private-sector jobs and put our country on a good path for the future.”

“I think it’s a question of making good choices,” countered Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), who serves as DPCC vice chairwoman. “We know we have to make tough decisions just like any family does. But we also know what’s important — investing in our own families. You make decisions about owning a home or sending the kids to college because you care about the future. So it’s very, very important that we not throw the baby out with the bath water here.”

The Democratic strategy is to tailor the message to the constituent, and the DPCC has prepared localized statistics to help Senators convey the effect of the House measure and a shutdown. For instance, parents with children of or near college age would be given statistics regarding how the House Republican budget and a shutdown would affect funding for Pell Grants, which help cover the cost of university tuition.

Senate Republicans are offering a strikingly different message.

As is his custom, Alexander created two double-sided, jacket-pocket-sized cards titled “Getaway Points” for GOP Senators.

The first category is titled “Private Sector Jobs; Make it easier and cheaper to create them,” followed by bullet points: reform tax code; lower corporate tax rates; reduce federal debt; reduce health care costs; lower energy costs; permanent small-business equipment write-off; permanent research and development tax credit; moratorium on Environmental Protection Agency regulation; ratify trade agreements; and reform job training.

The second category is titled “Federal Debt; This Time Is Different.” Bullet points include statistics about the debt, as well as the harm Republicans say deficit spending is doing to Social Security, interest rates, and loans for cars, homes and college tuition.

“I have a group of charts that I will literally use to show people what the budget is about, where the money comes from, where the money goes to, where the money is spent, and then the deficit and the impact of running deficits over a period of time,” Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) said. “It’s very, very compelling.”

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) disagreed, saying that the Republicans’ position on the continuing resolution was “risky, reckless and extreme.” Senate Republicans support the overall level of spending cuts approved by the House, although they might want to make adjustments in how those reductions are applied.

But Whitehouse said his message to constituents would be not to worry too much about it.

“We have a bicameral system of government with a House and a Senate, and we’re supposed to be the counterweight,” he said. “We obviously recognize the need to make budget cuts, but we need to make responsible ones that don’t cut off the economic recovery that we’re beginning to see and don’t kill jobs, the way the Republicans are doing.”

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