WASHINGTON — Their opening budget gambits history, lawmakers are returning to the bargaining table in search of a fiscal plan that cuts spending, as voters demanded in the last election, and could carry political value in the next one.
The balance is particularly delicate for senators up for re-election next year. Some, mostly Democrats, bucked their parties in a pair of votes Wednesday that sank a slashing budget proposal passed by the House 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.
The votes could be faint memories by Election Day 2012, suggested senators who will face voters then.
"This is the beginning of the process, not the end of the process," said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. A supporter of abortion rights, she nonetheless voted for the House-passed measure that would cut spending by $61 billion and strip taxpayer funding from Planned Parenthood.
"These aren't serious," Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. said of the two measures. "Who would pay attention to either one of these bills if they're not serious?"
A slate of potential challengers to moderates like Snowe, Nelson and others are raptly watching Congress over the next year, particularly on budget and spending issues.
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's been hobbling along at roughly 2010 spending levels through a series of temporary spending extensions.
At issue was legislation to fund the day-to-day operating budgets of every federal agency through Sept. 30, the end of the budget year, and provide a $158 billion infusion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The combatants are facing a March 18 deadline on the latest temporary extension. Republicans in the House already are drafting another one on the safe assumption there won't be a deal by then on a 6 1/2-month measure, even with the White House inserting itself into the process through Vice President Joe Biden.
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 $61 billion in cuts that tea partiers and other conservatives pushed through the House are too severe for Democrats.
The votes also provided an early scorecard for 2012 election watchers. Ten Senate Democrats, half of them running for re-election and some facing stiff 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 $61 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.