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Senate Plan for Dueling Debates on Spending Proposals Scotched

The Senate planned to vote today on competing budget plans for the rest of the fiscal year. The Democratic plan adds an additional $6.5 billion in cuts to the $4 billion in cuts passed last week as part of a two-week stopgap. The Republican plan is HR 1, which passed the House and included $61 billion in cuts overall.

Both were expected to fail. Some Democrats won’t vote for the Democratic plan, saying that the cuts are too meager. Some Republicans opposed the House Republican budget bill. So this was more of a benchmark vote than anything that moved the process forward.

And now, that won’t even happen.

The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, accused Senate Republicans of reneging on an agreement that would allow dueling budget votes without a procedural fight as plans for Senate test votes on spending cuts broke down Tuesday.

After holding negotiations with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and other administration officials last week, Democrats and Republicans said they intended to put competing plans on the floor and let the chips fall where they may in hopes of spurring movement toward a compromise.

But Mr. Reid, in an angry floor speech Tuesday morning, said Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader from Kentucky, was refusing to move ahead as they had agreed. Mr. Reid suggested that Senate Republicans did not want to vote on the $61 billion in cuts approved by their colleagues in the House.

“It seems Republicans themselves must have finally read their own budget,” Mr. Reid said. “Because now even they’re running away from it.”

Pretty strong accusation. But ultimately, Reid’s upset that Republicans are blocking a vote on two proposals that are destined to fail. Aside from once and for all breaking the gentlemen’s agreement on not filibustering the motion to proceed, I don’t see the issue.

The problem for Democrats in negotiating is that they don’t have a unified caucus, at least not to the extent of the Republicans. Joe Manchin took the opportunity of the impasse to cast himself as the bold truth-teller between two extremes. Many Democrats facing difficult re-elections will be tempted to do the same. So ultimately, there’s no line for Democrats to really hold. That’s why the debate is slipping away from them, and that’s why you can barely find a Democrat these days willing to talk straight about the budget and the economy:

The insanity of this political moment is difficult to fathom. Even if the latest employment figures underestimate job creation, as many experts expect, we’re still in the middle of a slow, tentative economic recovery. At this pace, it will be two or three years, at best, before employment returns to what it was before the recession. Meanwhile, low tax revenues are forcing state and local governments to cut spending, throwing public workers out of work (and onto the unemployment line) while reducing all kinds of public services. Oh, and gas prices are rising. That could undermine consumer confidence, such that it is.

The classic response to this situation would be for the federal government to enact the kind of emergency spending it did during the first two years of the Obama Administration, both to boost growth and to sustain public programs. But somehow, in Washington, the debate is over whether to cut spending for by a lot (as the Republicans want) or by a more moderate amount (as Obama has proposed) […]

Obama’s gambit, of course, is to gain credibility with skeptical voters by embracing at least some cuts at the outset. (He’s proposed some cuts in his budget for fiscal year 2012 and, presumably, will accept some as part of a deal on finishing fiscal year 2011.) I honestly don’t know if that’s the right political move or not.

But this much I do know: Somebody in the Democratic Party needs to defend government spending, because it expands the boundaries of political debate and because, substantively, a lot of government spending is worth defending.

Alas, that’s not happening.

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David Dayen

David Dayen