Senators Facing Re-Election Squeeze to Shape the Terms of U.S. Budget Deal

U.S. Senator Richard Lugar’s Tea Party-backed challenger for the 2012 Republican primary calls the six-term Indianan a “liberal” on the budget. Democrats accuse him of standing with conservative “extremists.”

Democratic Senator Joe Manchin opposed his own party’s spending plan as well as the Republicans’, then threatened to vote against raising the U.S. debt ceiling unless somebody shows him a plan for tackling deficits.

As they embark on 2012 re-election campaigns, both men are seeking a budget stance they can defend amid pressure from Tea Party activists on one side and self-described progressives on the other. To reach a deal, congressional leaders need votes from politically vulnerable senators like them, which hands them outsized power to shape the plan.

“Party leaders want to protect their most vulnerable members, so the goal should be a budget that those who are up for re-election can support,” said Darrell M. West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “That will push the compromise toward the middle, because most of those states are politically competitive.”

At the same time, “elections push members to their base, so Republicans are going to be under pressure from the Tea Party and Democrats will be feeling heat from liberals,” West said.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

U.S. Senator Joe Manchin. Close

U.S. Senator Joe Manchin.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

U.S. Senator Joe Manchin.

Republicans and Democrats are stalemated over funding the government through Sept. 30, with a shutdown looming if they don’t agree before current spending authority expires April 8. The Republican-led House passed a $1.2 trillion spending bill that would cut $61 billion and make policy changes to gut the health-care law and environmental rules and defund Planned Parenthood, which provides abortions.

60 Votes

Democrats propose about $10 billion in reductions and demand that the policy directives be removed. The Senate, controlled by Democrats 53-47, needs 60 votes to pass a budget.

In 2012, Senate Democrats will defend 23 seats while Republicans have just 10 in play. Democrats facing election challenges are calling for more spending cuts and a broader deficit-cutting plan than their party leaders have proposed.

Manchin, of West Virginia, this week became the first Democrat to announce he won’t back raising the $14.3 trillion debt limit -- a step Congress must take as early as May to avoid a default -- without a plan to reduce the deficit.

Reaching a budget deal “will be partisan and difficult,” Manchin said during a March 21 speech in Charleston. “Everyone will have to give up something, and no one will want to relinquish anything.”

Six Democrats

He was one of 11 members of the Senate Democratic caucus, six of them up for re-election in 2012, to oppose his party’s spending proposal this month as well as the Republican plan.

Another of the six, Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, also called for a middle-ground deal.

“We’re going to have to get serious about compromise,” McCaskill said in a March 17 statement before voting for the latest stopgap spending bill. “Cuts have to be made, but they must be done so in a responsible way.”

Republican strategists say Democrats in swing states -- including Manchin, McCaskill, Montana’s Jon Tester, Florida’s Bill Nelson and Nebraska’s Ben Nelson -- have a dilemma.

“A number of these so-called moderates are in a very precarious situation: Do you continue the status quo of Washington spending, or do you finally take a position on reining it in?” said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the Senate Republicans' campaign committee.


The political action group is pressing Democrats to dig in against the Republicans. The group aired a television this month that accused Republicans of waging war on the middle class and asked: “The only question is, will the Democrats stop them?”

“Going along with a budget that would cut financial aid for 8 million people and destroy hundreds of thousands of jobs is totally unacceptable,” Justin Ruben, executive director, said in an interview. “Our focus is really trying to stiffen the Democrats’ spines.”

Republicans, too, face competing pressures. Lugar, running for his seventh six-year term in Indiana, and Olympia Snowe of Maine, seeking her fourth, are being criticized by Tea Party- supported challengers charging they hedged on their support for deep cuts. Meantime the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said Lugar sided with “extremists” in voting this month for the $1.2 trillion House measure.

Lugar’s Republican challenger, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, attacked him for initially saying he would oppose the bill and then changing course to vote “yes.”

‘Liberal Instincts’

“Senator Lugar’s vacillation betrays his liberal instincts,” Mourdock said in a statement.

Senator Patty Murray of Washington, leader of the Democratic campaign committee, said Republicans who support the House spending reductions will lose support at home.

“Over time it really hurts people,” Murray said in an interview. “They’ve voted for these cuts that were really irresponsible, and I think they’re going to own that.”

Former Representative Tom Andrews, a Maine Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged Snowe before, wrote in an opinion piece in the Portland Press-Herald that she “has apparently decided that it is better to bow to political pressure from the Tea Party movement than to stand up for the interests of Maine.”

Snowe and Lugar say they aren’t caving in to political influence. Asked if he felt pressure to back the Republican cuts, Lugar said, “none particularly.”

‘Right Thing’

“I’m always concerned about anybody who’s eyeing me. That’s always going to be the case -- we’re in a political environment,” Snowe said. “The key is doing the right thing.”

It isn’t always clear what that is. Republican Senator Scott Brown, seeking his first full term in traditionally Democratic Massachusetts, said this week he supports federal money for Planned Parenthood although he voted for the spending bill that proposed defunding it.

“The proposal to eliminate all funding for family planning goes too far,” Brown said in a March 22 statement. “As we continue with our budget negotiations, I hope we can find a compromise that is reasonable and appropriate.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington at   or

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at

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