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Senate Democrats forced their GOP colleagues Wednesday to vote on a House Republican budget, getting most of those Republicans on record as backing that budget's unpopular plan to privatize Medicare.
Next week in the GOP-run House, a similar show vote is planned, asking lawmakers to raise the debt ceiling — with no strings attached — a move that could put Democrats in a tight spot.
When House Republicans approved the spending plan drawn up by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) last month, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) made no move to bring it up for a vote. But that was before GOP House members went back to their districts and took a lot of heat from angry constituents for backing the plan, which would privatize Medicare a decade from now.
Polls also show sizable majorities rejecting that plan. And when Democrat Kathy Hochul won a House seat in a special election in a solidly Republican district in upstate New York on Tuesday, Democrats credited that upset victory to her Republican opponent's embrace of Ryan's Medicare proposal.
'All About Political Fodder'
When Reid called for a vote Wednesday on bringing up the House budget in the Senate, he zeroed in on Medicare, saying, "The Republican plan to kill Medicare is a plan to make the rich richer and the sick sicker."
But the top Republican on the Budget Committee, Alabama's Jeff Sessions, said Democrats just don't get it.
"They think they can scare people by saying we're going to end Medicare, and they're going to vote on it," he said. "And the vote in our Democratic politicians' mind is that 'we defend Medicare and all of you oppose Medicare.'
"The American people are getting too smart for that. I don't believe they're going to buy that path any longer."
Republican Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska said it was simply campaign politics.
"These votes, I guarantee, are all about political fodder for next year's election season," he said.
Five Republicans — two of them up for re-election next year — broke ranks with their party and voted with Democrats to block the Ryan budget, 57-40. Alaska's Lisa Murkowski was among them.
"The Medicare reform piece is not one that I am 100 percent with, maybe I'm ... looking for the perfect here, but anyway, I'm voting no," she said.
Pointing to this week's victory in the New York House district, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee chairwoman, said it's clear the GOP Medicare plan is giving pause to many other Republicans as well.
"I'm confident that Senate Democrats will be able to play offense in races across the country by remaining focused on Republican efforts to end Medicare in order to pay for an almost 30 percent tax-rate reduction for the wealthiest Americans and big corporations," she said.
Ryan was dismissive about Senate Democrats putting his budget up for a vote before offering a plan of their own.
"It would be nice if they actually wrote a budget and tried to pass a budget," he said. "I think it's more political theater than anything."
That's exactly what House Democrats are saying about the Republicans' plan to hold a vote next week on raising the debt ceiling — without attaching any debt-reduction measures that would make such a vote politically safer for both sides. Democrats have backed off earlier demands for a vote simply on raising the debt limit, which has already been reached. But Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), the House Republican Conference chairman, said that vote is going ahead.
"This is something that the secretary of Treasury has requested. It's something that I think it's a 100, perhaps 150 different House Democrats have requested," he said. "We don't believe that's the way to go, but I think it's important to let the president know that that is not where the support of Congress is.
"So this will let him know that the votes aren't there and hopefully hasten negotiations."
New Jersey House Democrat Rob Andrews said Republicans are playing a very dangerous game with this vote.
"What you're going to get next week is a headline that says, 'U.S. House fails to raise debt ceiling,' " he said. "I don't know what global investors are going to make of that headline, but I don't think they should be reading it."
When asked if he would vote to raise the debt ceiling, Andrews said he "probably will."
That, too, is a vote destined to become next year's campaign fodder.