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A Budget Vote Today That Could Haunt an Election Tomorrow

The political class will spend much of the next two weeks’ recess poring over results from Friday’s vote-a-rama, with each party’s consultants plumbing for the best examples of senators stepping unwittingly into the frame of a future attack ad.

The rapid sequence of roll calls, each one designed as much to buttress one side as to trip up the other, is a return to a tradition that’s been suspended these past four years, because no budget resolution ever made it to the floor to be amended in this unique-under-the-rules manner. Some veterans of the ritual will be out of practice, some newcomers will be caught unaware.

And the pressure will be especially intense on the staffers advising the senators whose one false step could hobble their chances for re-election next year. Five are Democrats who have committed to running again in states that voted for Mitt Romney: Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. Three are Republicans laboring hardest at the moment to insulate themselves from tea party primary challenges: Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, John Cornyn of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Many of these eight will probably ending up grumbling about at least one “aye” or “nay” they might have called differently, had they only had a little more time to think in the hurly-burly of the moment.

But the same can’t really be said for the members of the House, who started their spring break Thursday after casting their first key budget votes of this Congress. The details of both the GOP budget resolution and the spending package for the next six months had been in wide circulation for days. So those two roll call votes offered great evidence for where the fiscal fault line has shifted within the Republican Conference, the divisions among those in that caucus pondering Senate campaigns and the posturing of House Democrats looking at their own 2014 prospects to move across the Capitol.

In the main, the lengthening roster of ambitious Republicans stood behind not only the sequester, but also a budget that sees balance in a decade entirely through spending restraint. The short list of Democrats with statewide aspirations joined their party’s united front against House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan’s fiscal plan, but also went against a majority of their caucus to oppose the continuing resolution.

Just four Republicans getting ready for Senate campaigns — declared candidate Paul Broun along with fellow Georgian Phil Gingrey, John Fleming of Louisiana and Justin Amash of Michigan, who are all still officially still just thinking about it — were among the 27 conservatives who voted against the CR on the grounds that its $984 billion grand total was still too much. At least 10 others who are pondering Senate races, and committed candidate Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, all embraced the depth of the sequester’s discretionary cuts — though not the across-the-board approach — through September.

Among the Democrats, who split 3-to-2 in favor of the CR, opposition came from three — Reps. Bruce Braley of Iowa, Gary Peters of Michigan and Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey— who are eyeing Senate seats left open by members of their own party. They spurned the bill on the grounds that the cuts were inappropriately deep, especially to domestic programs. The fourth, Nick J. Rahall II of more conservative-leaning West Virginia, joined his party’s mainstream.

The divisions on Ryan’s budget were crisper. Not a single Democrat voted for it, while only 10 Republicans voted against it, with the argument that it would apply the required fiscal discipline much too gently. On that dissenters list were just two in the Senate hunt, Broun and Amash, a signal that they see their only paths to higher office in 2014 running through contested primaries where they’d be positioned safely to the right of everyone else on fiscal policy.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was quick to pounce — not on Amash or Broun, whom they essentially laughed off — but on the potential candidates from the House who cast their lots with the GOP leadership’s plan. The committee emailed news releases lambasting 10 possible Senate candidates from six states for endorsing a budget that would “have disastrous consequences for [insert name of state] seniors, students, and middle class families,” because it places “tax breaks for millionaires and special interests ahead of creating jobs and making college more affordable.”

The Democrats clearly view those votes as sound-bite catnip that could sustain campaign rhetoric for a full 19 months.  The GOP will have its bon mots ready soon enough.

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