Senate Democrats Face Painful Budget Vote

“We don’t have an immediate crisis in terms of debt. In fact, for the next 10 years, it’s going to be in a sustainable place.”

-- President Obama in a March 12 interview with ABC News.

It’s been so long since Senate Democrats voted on a budget, that they might have forgotten how perilous a thing that can be. And with a budget plan that runs counter to the growing voter anxiety over federal debt, this one promises to be very perilous indeed.

As Senate Democrats start the process of voting on their first budget in four years, they are being reminded why it was so nice not to have to do so.

Consider that 33 of the 100 members of the upper chamber have never voted on a budget as senators, having come into office since the Senate last passed a full fiscal plan on April 29, 2009.

This may explain the problems surrounding the budget now lumbering forth in the Senate and why members are only belatedly coming to understand the political peril the vote will pose for them.

House Republicans are now well acquainted with the pain of the budget process, with Democrats having spent $1 billion in an unsuccessful attempt to use their previous budget against them in 2012. Democrats tried to torch the GOP majority with Paul Ryan’s budget, warning of deep cuts to Medicare and other programs.

Voters mostly shrugged it off last time, but House Republicans know their budget votes come at a cost. Ryan has encouraged his colleagues to stay aboard by making his plan more politically palatable this time around by proposing to balance the budget in 10 years instead of the decades he suggested last time.

Democrats complain that Ryan’s plan counts on the political impossibility of the repeal of President Obama’s 2010 health-insurance entitlement program to balance the budget. But it is at least a popular political impossibility.

The budget plan put forward by Ryan’s Senate counterpart, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., also is predicated on a political impossibility – another, larger round of tax increases – something of more dubious political utility.

Most dangerous, though, is that the Murray budget plan does not ever foresee balancing the federal budget, but instead would spend all of the new tax receipts and then some.

With Democrats facing a tough midterm cycle next year and voters increasingly anxious about debt and deficit, this is not a good time to cast a vote for a perpetually imbalanced budget. Americans may like the idea of including some tax hikes in addition to spending cuts for deficit elimination, but they certainly want the deficit eliminated.

Encouraged by Obama’s re-election and consumed with the bickering and posturing of Washington, Senate Democrats may have forgotten how this deficit business is shaping up for them next year, especially in light of changing voter attitudes on the subject.

Last week, Obama dismissed in an interview that deficit reduction for its own sake was a worthy goal. He waved off the suggestion that the federal government was facing a debt crisis and suggested that another decade of deficits were sustainable because of low interest rates and easy credit for the government via the government’s bank, the Federal Reserve.

The conventional wisdom on the left is that conservatives and their calls for austerity are Chicken Littles who are threatening the sputtery recovery by trying to reduce the growth of federal spending. Democrats mostly believe that the key to less borrowing in the future is more borrowing today to encourage economic growth with more government spending.

But since this current battle over budgets and sequestration began, voters have moved away from the Obama Democrats on the question of the benefits of borrowing.

In the latest FOX News poll, 85 percent of registered voters said that deficit reduction was a worthy goal in its own right. That’s up from 77 percent in January, before the current budget battle began.

On the question of stimulus spending, 54 percent of respondents said that deficit reduction should trump more spending to juice the economy. Only 38 percent said stimulus spending outranked deficit reduction.

The reason for the surge in concern about debt and deficits is probably that Americans don’t wake up every day thinking about what it means to be the largest debtor nation in the world. The federal debt, like killer asteroids, super bugs and Iran’s nuclear program, is only scary if you think about it.

Obama has been asking voters to back him in his push for more spending and for weeks used the presidential bully pulpit to try to cow Republicans into relenting on the subject. But in doing so has managed to remind voters that their government borrows about a third of what it spends and has little hope of balancing the books anytime soon.

This may explain why the president so suddenly dropped his campaign for spending, realizing that he was pushing his own job ratings down and driving voters into the arms of fiscal hawks.

Any conversation that starts out explaining why a federal debt approaching $20 trillion is manageable has to first remind voters that their government is nearly $20 trillion in debt.

As the Midterm elections draw nearer and voters recoil from deficit spending, more and more Democrats are remembering their debt aversion of the Bush era.

If Senate Democrats reject the Murray budget at the same rate that House Democrats did when offered the plan on Wednesday, there would be at least 17 Democratic defections in the Senate. That would leave the party’s official plan well short of a majority.

It won’t be that high, but it will not be easy to convince potentially vulnerable Democrats up for re-election next year or in 2016 to back a plan that gives such short shrift to the idea of deficit reduction.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will be feeling plenty of pressure to let members of his caucus get off of Murray’s budget bus.

And Now, A Word From Charles

“It's hard to guess because the president has shown a complete reluctance to do anything that is risky in Syria.  In some ways that is understandable after the Iraq war and the problems we have had in Libya and Benghazi where we helped topple a government and it turned bad.”  

-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET  at