WASHINGTON – Senate Republican leaders are criticizing a bipartisan budget deal, parting ways with their House counterparts who shepherded the measure through that chamber last week.
The split makes it harder for the Republican Party to present a united front as it approaches the midterm election year. And it shows that even modest tweaks in tax and spending policies trigger strong reactions in conservative circles.
The Senate’s top four Republican leaders voted Tuesday to block consideration of the budget bill. Their effort failed, however, and the measure appears headed for final passage and President Barack Obama’s signature into law later this week.
Some GOP activists play down the House-Senate divide’s implications, saying it’s driven by internal congressional politics more than by serious philosophical splits. The Senate Republican leaders, they say, knew the bill would succeed without their votes, and they made no real effort to recruit colleagues to kill it.
“Our leadership gets along pretty well, and co-ordinates pretty well with each other,” said Terry Holt, a longtime Republican strategist and former congressional staffer with close ties to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Holt said it’s not unusual for the minority party in the House or Senate to force the other party to provide the overwhelming majority of votes for contentious legislation.
Republicans control the House, and they provided more than half the “yes” votes when the budget deal passed the House 332 to 94. But Republicans hold only 45 of the Senate’s 100 seats.
Republicans note that a Democratic senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, voted in 2006 against raising the federal debt ceiling, when Republican George W. Bush was president. When Obama became president, he chided Republicans for opposing the same type of debt ceiling increases.
The bipartisan budget bill would restore about $63 billion in across-the-board spending cuts scheduled to take effect over the next two years. It calls for $85 billion in budget savings over the next decade. Among other things, it would extend existing cuts to Medicare providers, raise airline security fees and require federal civilian employees to pay more of their pension costs.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was among the 37 Republicans who voted Tuesday to keep the bill from moving forward. Joining him were the next three ranking Republican leaders: John Cornyn of Texas, John Thune of South Dakota and John Barrasso of Wyoming.
But several senior Republicans who lack leadership positions support the budget measure. It’s imperfect, said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, “but sometimes the answer has to be yes.”
“Ultimately, this agreement upholds the principles conservatives stand for,” Hatch said. “And with Democrats controlling the White House and the Senate, it is the best we could hope for.”
McConnell and Cornyn face tea party-backed Republican primary challengers in their re-election bids next year. These challengers and their donors sharply criticize the bipartisan bill because it eases scheduled spending cuts.
McConnell repeatedly has defended these “sequester” cuts, which the budget bill would reduce, said former GOP congressional aide John Feehery. So the senator could open himself up to fierce criticism if he backed the compromise measure.
“It would be nice to get everyone on the same page,” Feehery said. “But it’s probably too much to ask.”
Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the 2012 Republican nominee for vice-president, said the majority party must show it can govern if it’s to remain in power. Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, was the top Republican in shaping the compromise plan now awaiting Senate action.
When a Republican senator’s criticisms were noted last week, Ryan dismissed them on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” saying, “Read the deal and get back to me.”
“In the minority, you don’t have the burden of governing, of getting things done,” Ryan said.