Lindsey Graham, Carl Levin
J. Scott Applewhite  /  AP
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., left, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., arrive to vote on the spending bill in the Senate, at the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday.
updated 3/10/2011 4:40:49 PM ET 2011-03-10T21:40:49

After dispensing with their opening gambits, lawmakers are renewing budget-cutting bargaining, as voters demanded in the last election and will scrutinize in the next one.

It's a delicate balancing act for members of Congress, particularly senators facing re-election next year. Some lawmakers, mainly Democrats, bucked their parties in a pair of votes Wednesday that both rejected the House's deep spending cut plan and killed a less onerous Senate alternative.

Senate strikes down GOP, Dem budget bills

The two versions were nearly $50 billion apart on how much spending should be cut over the next seven months. Neither stood a chance of passing. Senate Democrats brought them up to cancel each other out and move forward with negotiations on a compromise.

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Top Democrats said Thursday that Republicans need to show some flexibility to avoid a government shutdown — the latest temporary spending measure expires March 18.

"We're looking for some give on the Republican side," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. Citing House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and first-term tea party-backed lawmakers, Schumer said Boehner "needs something to bring his ... freshmen into the real world."

Story: Poll: Public prefers cutting defense spending

To Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, the votes were only a start. A supporter of abortion rights, she nonetheless voted for the House-passed measure that would cut spending by $61 billion and strip public support for Planned Parenthood.

"These aren't serious," Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., said about the two measures that went down to defeat. "Who would pay attention to either one of these bills if they're not serious?"

Potential challengers to moderates such as Snowe, Nelson and others are keeping close watch on Congress, particularly on budget and spending issues.

Facing March 18 deadline
Democrats put off the 2011 budget battle last year when they ran Congress, only to find themselves with a weaker hand after voters in November turned control of the House over to Republicans and gave the GOP a half-dozen more Senate seats. Since then, the government has hobbled along at roughly 2010 spending levels through a series of temporary spending extensions.

First Thoughts: Overlapping battlegrounds

At issue was legislation to cover the day-to-day operating budgets of every federal agency through September, and provide a $158 billion infusion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With next week's deadline looming, Republicans in the House are working on another temporary extension on the safe assumption there won't be a deal by then on a 6 1/2-month measure.

Wednesday's votes at least established what's not acceptable. The $12 billion in cuts proposed by senior Senate Democrats and embraced by President Barack Obama are too modest for Republicans, and the more than $60 billion in cuts that tea partiers and other conservatives pushed through the House are too severe for Democrats.

Video: Sen. Thune on budget standoff

Early scoreboard for 2012 watchers
The votes also provided an early scorecard for 2012 election watchers. Ten Senate Democrats, half of them running for re-election and some facing strong challenges, voted against their own party's measure.

"There are way too many people in denial around here about the nature of the problem and how serious it is," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. Her party's cuts are not enough, she said.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., voted the same way for the same reason. But he coupled his vote with a complaint about the way Washington works, from the president on down, echoing a common theme in last year's election.

"Why are we voting on partisan proposals that we know will fail, that we all know do not balance our nation's priorities with the need to get our fiscal house in order?" he said.

The other eight Democrats who voted no: Michael Bennet and Mark Udall of Colorado, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, Carl Levin of Michigan, Nebraska's Nelson, Bill Nelson of Florida and James Webb of Virginia. Liberal independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont also voted no.

Three Republican senators — all members of the tea party movement — rejected the House GOP's $60 billion-plus billion in cuts as too timid.

"What we're trying to do on this is say, 'Folks, we're not even in the ballpark of where we need to be,'" said one of them, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. "So let's talk about one step, two step, three steps of how we are going to get to a balanced budget."

Another, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., agreed. "I think both approaches do not significantly alter or delay the crisis that's coming," he said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Federal budget: Where do we go from here?

  1. Closed captioning of: Federal budget: Where do we go from here?

    >>> why are we doing all this when the most powerful person in these negotiations, our president has failed to lead this debate or offer a serious proposal for spending and cuts that he would be willing to fight for?

    >> well that's west virginia senator joe manchin . he's up for re-election in 2012 . is he going rogue.

    >> with $50 billion still separating the democrats and republicans both parties are working to rein in other possible defectors within their parties and calling on the white house to get more directly involved. joining us now, ken strickland, nbc news senate producer and major garrett . welcome, gentlemen. we see joe manchin . diane feinstein said the president has to play a much greater role. olympia snowe said the president should convene leaders from both sides of the aisle. is this something you're hearing a lot on this. do people feel the president has not shown enough leadership here?

    >> i think what's going to happen today with these votes is pretty much a side show for a couple of reasons. both of them will fail. you talk to people what needs to be done, neither one of these spending reduction packages gets nowhere near actually bringing down deficit numbers. there may be some defections. republicans feel they might be able to hold all their folks in line. there's a lot of chatter about who will defect, why is mcconnell delaying the vote. there's a sense on the republican side while a lot of republicans , especially moderates are not crazy about the house bill they want to send a signal to the democrats that they are serious about cutting spending. so when this goes down i expect lot of press releases to come out from republicans saying i voted for the house bill, i don't like it but we have to send some type of a message.

    >> this call for presidential intervention. you're probably smiling this morning because that's what they want to be seen as the calvary coming in at the end bringing both sides together but you got to ask, this seems like --

    >> you can't be the calvary and above the fray at the same time. those are completely d lly opposed position. they have to be part of the calvary. this sounds glib. joe manchin was the canary in the coal mine . last week democrats said the white house is absent. we're not getting any air cover on this debate. we don't know what the white house bottom line is. the trajectory is moving in the republican's direction. what is the trajectory?

    >> the white house will argue the senate democrats come up with one plan. come up with one plan nept the senate democrats to own the plan.

    >> the senate democrats have a lingering fear whatever they come up, the white house will say you're here, the republicans are there. we'll be the calvary on our terms. what this is partially about is a lack of trust and a sense of whose side is on the white house is on.

    >> a delicate balance that has network between white house and the senate. at the end of the day it doesn't march what the administration wants they have to have the vote for it in the senate. what happens a lot of times the white house sits back and let the senate democratic leadership say tell me where the votes are. if that works, because it has to be passed.

    >> what we can't afford to have happen is a jail break towards spending cuts. joe manchin is up for re-election in 2012 . this debate has yet to mature. it hasn't existed and i fundamental way.

    >> everybody feels like they have to get through these votes for whatever purposes of catharsis that will bring. what about dick durbin saying on the sunday shows will 6.5 billion that's our closing day we won't cut any more.

    >> he said that was his personal opinion.

    >> a lot of white house folks were scratching their heads on that one. it's clear this number will get bigger.

    >> if there's -- if we're sure of anything today 61 billion will not make it and 6 billion will not make it. there will be this very nuance thing. unlike health care , what will be the magic number . at the end. day it has to be what makes republicans feel they won and what makes democrats feel they won.

    >> let's put it up in brass tacks. dick luger said he would come out and vote for the republican proposal .

    >> 61 won't make it, 10 won't make it and defections of the house of the senate republicans isn't going to affect that 61 billion number. that 61 billion number is the outer edge. even if they defect everybody knows they will get to 35 or 40. the 61 billion lives and breathes.

    >> what we don't know what the vote total will be at the end of the day don't be surprised if there are no republican defections. the words coming out of the luncheon is that we don't like exactly some of the thing that they've cut in there but we like the message.

    >> they know it's not going to pass.

    >> all right.

    >> ken strickland, major garrett .

    >> read major's piece on john


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