Senate GOP Unifies Over Balanced Budget Message

Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:25pm

Republican Senators are set to kick off a media blitz to push a balanced budget amendment, beginning Wednesday in D.C. and building up through their July Fourth recess next week, when Members will flood local papers and airwaves with support.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) laid the groundwork for the campaign Sunday, when he told ABC News that he would call for a mid-July vote. More than a dozen lawmakers will hold a news conference Wednesday morning to reintroduce the bill they touted in March, followed by colloquies on the floor Wednesday and Thursday and multiple television appearances throughout the week.

McConnell will introduce a “broke or balanced” talking point that leaders hope will energize an effort that has failed multiple times.

The timing of the campaign is deliberate: Republicans want to gain momentum for the amendment over the July Fourth recess, when they believe they can accrue grass-roots support for the provision, before returning to Capitol Hill and forcing a vote. They also think the political climate is better now than it was in the spring, with Congressional and national attention focused on the ongoing budget debate in the run-up to the Aug. 2 deadline to raise the debt ceiling.

“I think you’ll be seeing our Members slowly build up our echo chamber, taking this message back to our constituents, working with local press, local groups, local outlets in a full-scale push to get this done,” a senior GOP aide said. “We’re circumventing the traditional Beltway filters and going straight to local markets.”

All 47 Members of the Republican Conference have united behind the balanced budget amendment, a rare occurrence in a Conference that encompasses moderates such as Olympia Snowe of Maine and tea party darlings like Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah.

The aides orchestrating the hometown push for the balanced budget amendment said most lawmakers are slotted to write local opinion pieces, discuss the amendment in local TV appearances, and address the topic in town halls and constituent meetings over the holiday break. They touted a Mason-Dixon poll, published at the end of May, that found that 81 percent of Republicans, 68 percent of independents and 45 percent of Democrats support the amendment.

Republicans think they can do a better job of separating themselves from Democrats on economic issues if they do so at home, and they see the balanced budget amendment as the way to do it.

“If you take Nebraska, for example, I imagine people in Nebraska will be very interested in why both their Senators talk about the need to reduce our debt but only one of them is doing anything; same in Florida,” another GOP leadership aide said.

But Democrats aren’t biting on the balanced budget amendment bait.

“Given that Republicans just voted for a budget that increases the debt by $9 trillion, this is nothing more than a hoax to mollify their right-wing base,” a Democratic leadership aide said. “Republicans are rolling out the dog-and-pony show to try and turn this amendment into a consolation prize for their base when their plan to end Medicare isn’t in the debt deal.”

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, is planning a hearing on the amendment in response to a request this month from Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). The hearing is timed to occur at roughly the same time that McConnell wants a floor vote. Although Democrats say they will keep an open mind, they insist that the Majority Leader sets the schedule and that the GOP push is futile, given that such a measure is unlikely to pass the Democratic-controlled chamber.

The push to move the balanced budget amendment to the floor has a distinct tea party flavor, although establishment Republicans are also championing the measure.

For instance, Paul campaigned on the issue and will be one of the Senators to address the media Wednesday. His staff said he has spoken so much on the issue that he won’t take prepared remarks for the news conference. His staffers are working on multiple opinion pieces to run across the state over the July Fourth break, and Paul, who has widened his local media TV outreach, will address the topic in upcoming interviews.

Coalescing around an issue is an opportunity that Senate freshmen have been restless about.

“I know it’s been frustrating for some of the new Senators who came in on this tide, to sit around and have three or four votes on nominations each week instead of taking on serious issues,” Paul spokeswoman Moira Bagley said. “The fact that you can get the entire Republican caucus to agree on this is a pretty big move in itself.”

But the question still remains whether others, from outside groups to a handful of vulnerable Democrats, will regard the GOP effort as attractive or even reasonable.

In March, 10 Democrats backed a “sense of the Senate” amendment offered by Lee in support of a balanced budget amendment: Mark Begich (Alaska), Michael Bennet (Colo.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Tom Carper (Del.), Herb Kohl (Wis.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Mark Udall (Colo.). Six of those Members are up for re-election, and Kohl is retiring.

“America faces a choice — do we go broke or do we enact a balanced budget amendment to slash our over $14 trillion debt? That’s why we are forcing this debate that Washington Democrats don’t want to have, because we have to start living within our means,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who will lead the floor colloquy Wednesday.