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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.