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Senate's all-day budget debate dominated by politics

From Ted Barrett, CNN Senior Congressional Producer
updated 8:37 PM EDT, Wed May 16, 2012
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, center, and Republican colleagues battled Senate Democrats on budget issues Wednesday.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, center, and Republican colleagues battled Senate Democrats on budget issues Wednesday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The GOP's McConnell hits Democrats for not passing a formal budget this year
  • Majority Leader Reid fires back, referring to "stunt budgets" by Republicans
  • Much of the day's exercise was an effort by both parties to score political points

Washington (CNN) -- It had all the appearances of a serious-minded debate: Republicans insisted the Senate spend all day Wednesday arguing which party had better budget proposals to fix the economy.

But the reality was none of the measures had enough votes to pass, and much of the exercise was an effort by both parties to score political points and embarrass the other side -- another display of partisan maneuvering that polls show frustrates voters.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell opened the debate by accusing Democrats of being "irresponsible" for not passing a formal budget this year.

Senate mired in 'do nothing' quagmire

"If you're looking for a simple, three-word description of the Democrat approach to the problems we face, it's this: duck and cover. They don't have a budget of their own. They're going to vote against their own president's budget later today and they're going to vote against every budget Republicans put up."

Obama, congressional leaders talk about debt

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid fired back, saying the Senate had already agreed to funding levels for 2013 and was too busy to deal with "stunt budgets" offered by Republicans.

"We can't afford to waste any time," Reid said. "Yet today Republicans will force the Senate to waste a day on a series of political show votes."

Republicans commandeered the floor by taking advantage of a seldom-used Senate rule that allows any senator to offer a budget if the Budget Committee has not passed a budget resolution by April 1.

In this case, Republicans called up five budgets: one that closely mirrored President Obama's budget proposal submitted earlier this year; another, authored by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, which the House approved; and three from very conservative senators aimed at making drastic reductions to entitlements costs, government spending and taxes.

Romney, GOP try to shift focus to deficit

Going into the day, everyone knew none of the bills would get the 51 votes needed to succeed. And, as Republicans had calculated, the president's budget got zero yes votes, providing Republicans with the political ammunition they sought for the campaign trail this year.

"The president's 2013 budget would expand the scope of government by spending more money, increase taxes on job creators, and continue on the path of enormous deficits and record debt," explained Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

Several Democrats, however, said they voted against the president's budget not because they oppose its broad principles but because it was submitted several months ago and is now out of date.

"It misrepresents the president's budget," said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, a liberal who is up for re-election "The numbers have changed since then."

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, another liberal who also is running for re-election, said he was not going to fall for a GOP trap.

"It's become too much of a game for these guys," he said just as he entered the chamber to cast his vote against the motion representing the Obama budget.

Centrist Democrat Joe Manchin, who is also up for re-election in closely divided West Virginia, said he opposed all the GOP budgets because "they would destroy Social Security and Medicare -- all while protecting the wealthy" and the president's budget because "it digs an even deeper debt hole for the next generation."

The House Republican budget got 41 Republican votes and zero Democratic votes. Five Republicans, including Sen. Scott Brown who is facing a tough re-election fight in Massachusetts, voted against it.

A proposal from Sen. Pat Toomey, R- Pennsylvania, that would balance the budget in eight years got 42 Republican votes and no Democratic votes.

A proposal from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, that would cut eliminate several cabinet agencies -- including Commerce, Education, Housing and Urban Developments and Energy -- only got 16 votes.

And a proposal from Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, which would institute a flat tax, raise the eligibility age for Social Security, and repeal "Obamacare" only got 17 votes.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-North Dakota, complained the GOP budget proposals "would take us right back to the failed policies that brought this country to the brink of economic collapse. That's what happened the last time they were in charge."

At a news conference, authors of the three conservative budgets bristled at the suggestion they were involved in "gotcha" politics. Instead, they argued they deserved credit for having the political courage to put their ideas up for votes, and criticized Democrats for not doing the same.

"I think this suggestion this could be, as you put it, a 'gotcha' moment, ignores the rather striking reality which is the failure to put forward something, and the willingness simply to stand back and criticize those who have put forward something is itself a gotcha," said Lee. "That's really the problem. Putting forward something isn't a gotcha. Criticizing those who do, while doing nothing, is."

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