Wednesday's spending votes will lay markers
Senators will make their case for competing visions of how to fund the government on Wednesday afternoon, getting a chance to lay markers with two votes that will help determine where negotiations go from here.
The Senate is scheduled to vote on a Republican plan to fund the rest of the fiscal year and cut $57 billion from current discretionary spending levels and a Democratic plan to cut $4.7 billion.
At the same time, Senate Democrats are seeking to broaden the debate to include other parts of the budget, such as entitlements and other mandatory spending.
Democrats believe that holding votes on the two options will force Republicans to negotiate from their $57 billion figure by demonstrating that a middle path will need to be forged. Neither the GOP plan nor the Democratic plan is expected to win the 60 votes needed to pass.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Tuesday: "What we need is votes on both those [plans] so we can see whether or not a consensus exists. If neither of those produces a consensus, then the clear indication is we need to come together, everyone needs to move off their starting position, as the president clearly has, and resolve this. And I think we can. The president remains optimistic that we can."
Part of that broader resolution, if Senate Democratic leaders have their way, will include a discussion of mandatory spending, taxes, and other areas.
That call to expand the talks represents the latest Democratic bid to jar Republicans loose from an uncompromising position. Democrats have previously won official White House involvement in talks and forced Wednesday's votes in what they called an attempt to push Republicans to compromise.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., stressed that "we're willing to negotiate," but underscored that other parts of the budget should be part of the discussion.
"There are many other [parts of the budget] that we can look at" for savings, Reid said. "Commodity prices for farms, farm products have never been -- never been higher than they are today. There's money there. Take, for example, the offshore oil subsidies that one of the leading company's former chief executives said, 'We don't need those subsidies anymore.' There's money there."
"So without going into detail, there are other places we can move to bring about some cost savings," Reid continued, adding that defense spending and taxes should also be part of the discussion.
Senate Majority Whip Rep. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said: "If the Republicans are serious about dramatic deficit reduction this year, then let's bring a few more things to the table. Let's start talking about revenue, let's start talking about entitlement programs. It doesn't have to be the big ones [Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security]; there are lots of other entitlements we can bring to the table."
Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Chairman Chuck Schumer of New York was set to give a speech on Wednesday that will call "for the ongoing negotiations led by the White House to 'broaden the playing field' when it comes to deficit reduction and include mandatory spending cuts and tax code reforms as part of any final compromise," according to a release from his office.
Senate Republicans have been echoing House Republicans -- who wrote the GOP continuing resolution that passed the House last month -- in arguing that the $57 billion figure is the correct one. But they might seek changes under that top-line level of reductions.
"I think what we are saying with our vote [for the GOP package] is that we support reducing federal spending in the discretionary account by" $57 billion, said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. "Now we are going to reserve our right within that [figure] to set our own priorities. One change I don't want to see is a change in the number."
Both Senate Democrats and Republicans have been whipping their members to maximize support for their respective proposals.
"We'll get the vast majority of our people voting for it," Reid said of the Democratic plan.
GOP leaders hope to unify their members, or come close, on a vote for the House CR. Republican senators and aides said doing so would signal that they want to match the overall spending goal of the House CR, even if they had issues with specific cuts or the measure itself.
In what appeared a striking example of the push for unanimity, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., entered a GOP conference luncheon saying he opposed the bill, and emerged an hour later saying he had misspoke and would support the House measure. Lugar's office said he had been confused in a scrum of reporters when he addressed the question the first time.
Meanwhile, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said he believes that another short-term CR will be needed to provide more time for congressional leaders to strike a compromise. The current CR expires on March 18.
"I think 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."
But, to keep the pressure on negotiators, Reid said he doesn't support the idea of another short-term CR.
"I personally am opposed to more short-term," Reid said. "We have to get the long-term done. Long-term is becoming short-term. We're down to about six months now. So I would hope that we can move forward on a long-term solution to the country's problems as it relates to this short-term budget problem. It's all short-term now. There is no long term. It's all short-term."
Dan Friedman contributed to this report.