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Senate Democrats Muted on Obama Budget

While President Barack Obama was rallying the faithful around a politically minded budget laden with base-nourishing tax and spending proposals, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was keeping a low profile.

Democratic leaders such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) and even Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (Wash.) produced enthusiastic press releases extolling the budget’s vision and virtue, but the Nevada Democrat was mum.

And, when he went to the floor Monday afternoon — long after the budget had been delivered and an 11:15 a.m. embargo had been lifted — Reid focused on the mundane goings-on of the Senate chamber in his opening remarks.

In fact, when Reid did touch on a president’s plan for spending, it wasn’t to reference Obama’s newly proposed budget — or, in fact, any of Obama’s budget plans.

Instead, Reid referenced former President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s bold push for a transnational highway system in the 1950s, intoning solemnly that, “President Eisenhower, a Republican, said the investment would pave the way for a new era of American growth.”

He did not note that a key piece of Obama’s budget deals with the need to pass a new authorization of the highway bill, a version of which the Senate is debating this week.

Reid’s hesitancy to talk about the budget is understandable; the Senate hasn’t produced a budget in almost three years, while the House Democrats and Republicans as well as the Obama administration have produced two of their own. House Democrats even produced an “alternative” budget last year as a foil to Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s (Wis.) controversial plan to change Medicare.

However, Reid has said repeatedly that he doesn’t plan to bring a Senate budget plan to the floor this year because the August 2011 deal to raise the debt ceiling serves as a de facto budget. It included the discretionary spending caps needed to write the annual spending bills for this year.

A Senate Democratic aide explained, “We’ve completed the budget exercise … and are now focused on creating jobs.”

While Obama’s blueprint may fire up the base, the aide said Senate Democrats are unconcerned with election fallout from their decision to sidestep the budget this year because fights over process do not resonate.  “We are funding the government,” the aide said. Voters “don’t care if [we] put out a nonbinding blueprint, and nothing Republicans say will make them,” the aide added.

The political nature of a budget is nothing new. And in an election year with a divided Congress, there’s virtually no chance Obama’s plan — or any budget blueprint — will be adopted by Congress. Instead, the exercise would merely open vulnerable Senate Democrats up to countless budget amendment votes that could possibly be used against them in their re-election campaigns.

Given that reality, the lack of a warm embrace from Reid’s fellow Democrats was not surprising.

Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) was circumspect, saying in a statement that Obama’s budget was “moving the country in the right direction” given the economic downturn that predated him. Conrad did credit Obama and Democrats with helping to stabilize the situation, but he indicated that Obama’s budget lacked ambition.

“We will need to do more to put the nation on a sustainable long-term fiscal path,” he said. “The only true way forward is through a comprehensive and balanced deficit reduction agreement.”

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) was also noncommittal. He said in a statement: “While I don’t agree with the entirety of his request, his budget works toward deficit reduction by meeting the deep automatic spending cuts that were set into motion last year. It is also a strong endorsement for future job creation.”

Even worse were statements from Members such as Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who rejected it outright.

Pryor — who is up for re-election this year — said, “This budget proposal is simply a case of misplaced priorities when it comes to Arkansas.”

Murray was one of only a handful of Senate Democrats to actually praise the budget, saying it would invest in “jobs, training, and infrastructure to get our economy back on track and our workers back on the job” and would raise taxes on the wealthy to provide balance to the sacrifice Americans would need to make.

On the other side of the Capitol, Democrats embraced the budget.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) hailed the budget as showing Democrats’ “top priority is to rebuild the middle class by creating jobs and investing in infrastructure and education. Republicans’ top priority is to protect the ultra-wealthy and to make sure the privileged few don’t have to sacrifice a dime, leaving America’s seniors to pay more for their hard-earned Medicare.”

Republicans were quick to hammer the administration.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the plan is nothing more than a campaign document.

Americans “deserve to know why the president’s own party doesn’t want to vote on it,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “And why his own top advisers are trying to deflect serious questions about what’s really going on here.”

McConnell has said he will introduce Obama’s plan himself and force a vote on it in the Senate in the coming months.

White House officials in recent days have sought to downplay the move by Senate Democratic leaders to forgo a budget debate, and on Monday, they seemed to acknowledge the political nature of their own efforts.

During a briefing with reporters Monday, White House economic adviser Gene Sperling bluntly said, “Whether or not you agree with every measure in this budget, there is no question [the budget] achieves this type of balance between revenue and spending cuts. The only question is whether the House Republican budget that will come forward soon will for the first time include any semblance of that balance in their budget.”

Doug Thornell, a veteran Democratic operative and senior vice president at SKDKnickerbocker, argued Obama’s focus on “fairness,” particularly his plan to end the Bush-era tax cuts and other tax breaks for the wealthy, “unifies the party and our messaging in terms of opening the conversation about the Ryan budget and Republican priorities.”

Indeed, just because Reid and other Senate Democrats weren’t crowing about Obama’s budget Monday, that doesn’t mean they won’t be holding a healthy dose of votes on taxing millionaires and funding infrastructure projects this year.