Some Democrats Embrace Fiscal Restraint as Budget Woes Grow, Elections Near

Jan. 25: Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., center, is flanked by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., during a news conference on Capitol Hill.

Jan. 25: Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., center, is flanked by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., during a news conference on Capitol Hill.  (AP)

With a difficult election cycle already underway, Senate Democrats are increasingly embracing tough proposals to bring down the debt and deficit.

Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., on Tuesday became the first Democrat to sign onto a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, a measure sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and introduced the same day by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.

Democrats embraced a number of costly spending measures over the past two years in an attempt to stabilize a faltering economy. But the provisions, like the $814 billion stimulus bill, have largely proved unpopular with the electorate, particularly with independents. The moves also sparked a growing conservative outrage, including the Tea Party movement. Now, with twice as many Democrats as Republicans facing reelection in the Senate next year and spending still high on the list of voter concerns, some swing state Democrats like Udall are eager to show their fiscal restraint.

"This bill is all about causing waves. Everything is on the table," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., as she introduced a bill with a handful of Republicans and no Democratic colleagues on Tuesday that would force Congress to dramatically cut spending over 10 years. "It feels a little lonely right now," the senator said, though she promised she would be lobbying her Democratic colleagues for support. "I can be really obnoxious."

But McCaskill, who is in for a tough 2012 reelection fight, quickly ran into a wall of opposition, led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who told reporters he would "do everything I can in throwing my legislative body" in front of any effort to alter the program for seniors and the disabled, adding, "People should just leave Social Security alone."

McCaskill is no stranger to partnering with Republicans on spending. The Missouri Democrat teamed up with conservative Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., to impose strict spending caps for the next three years at fiscal 2010 levels. The measure has increasingly received bipartisan support, with 17 Democrats joining all Republicans in the latest effort. The pair said they would try again to get the bill passed in this session.

Democrats have said Republicans do not own the mantel of fiscal responsibility, however, as many decried successful GOP attempts to extend all of the Bush-era tax cuts last year, a move that Democrats said dramatically raised the deficit.

President Obama encountered a good deal of backlash, though, among congressional Democrats, led by Reid, as he embraced a two-year earmark moratorium in his State of the Union address. But in a surprise move, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, an ardent defender of such pet projects, reluctantly embraced the moratorium on Tuesday, one supported by nearly all Senate and House Republicans.

"… the handwriting is clearly on the wall. The president has stated unequivocally that he will veto any legislation containing earmarks, and the House will not pass any bills that contain them,” Inouye said. “Given the reality before us, it makes no sense to accept earmark requests that have no chance of being enacted into law."

Even if Inoye’s move was grudging, it still won praise from fiscal hawk Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who said in reaction, "I hope the rest of the Senate works with, rather than against, Chairman Inouye, President Obama and House and Senate Republicans as we turn our attention away from earmarking and toward the enormous economic challenges facing our country."

Coburn, a member of the president’s deficit reduction commission, is also working with a bipartisan group of former panel members behind closed doors, an effort led by retiring Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-ND, that also includes Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to try to implement some of the tough measures put forward by the commission’s co-chairmen. And Reid, who praised the group's efforts Tuesday, vowed to hold votes this year on their recommendations.

Many of the proposals to reduce the nation’s $14 trillion debt are likely to be deeply unpopular with many Democrats and some Republicans. Changes for eligibility and benefits to entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, are all but certain to be included in any significant debt reduction plan. But McCaskill said Tuesday that members should be prepared to lose elections and "go home" over such efforts.