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Posted at 5:29 PM ET, 02/14/2011

Democratic senators slow to embrace Obama's budget

By Aaron Blake

Updated at 6:06 p.m.

Senate Democrats offered a lukewarm response to President Obama's budget on Monday.

Reactions trickled in slowly as senators and House members cautiously reacted to what is going to be a political hot potato.

Some Democratic senators offered general praise for the president's efforts to cut spending, but many had their own gripes with some aspect of the budget, and they weren't holding back.

"This budget proposal raises a lot of questions about where the priorities of this administration are," said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.).

Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) each decried the cuts in low-income heating assistance, also known as LIHEAP.

"There are certainly areas of the federal budget that could be cut, but LIHEAP is not one of them," Casey said.

Added Blumenthal: "While fiscal responsibility and eliminating excess spending is a top priority, it should not be done on the backs of those struggling every day just to pay their heating bills or put food on the table."

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), meanwhile, emphasized that she "may not agree with everything in it," as did Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

"I don't think we should balance the budget on the backs of seniors who cannot afford the rising costs of heating their home," Gillibrand said.

Several senators mentioned the LIHEAP cuts, but Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who runs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, went big picture, calling for cuts outside non-defense discretionary spending -- a relatively small piece of the budget pie on which Obama's cuts focus.

"If we are going to make real progress toward fiscal responsibility, we have to have a serious conversation that goes beyond this limited area," Murray said.

The reactions from senators in the president's own party are not terribly surprising; making cuts is difficult, and it's always going to adversely affect a key constituency in at least one senator's home state.

And, with 23 Democratic seats up in 2012 including some in Republican-friendly states like North Dakota, Nebraska and Montana, senators must be careful in being too closely associated with any of the president's major proposals.

Republicans sought to put pressure on senators in such states on Monday, with the National Republican Senatorial Committee issuing releases asking Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Tester (D-Mont.) to weigh in.

But the reactions Monday from some senators who are not up in 2012 were equally as telling, and they provide the first sign of the difficult dance ahead for a president who has promised cuts and now must deliver on them.

In many of their statements, Democrats emphasized that while the president's budget might not be ideal, it's better than the ideas Republicans are putting forward.

"It stands in sharp contrast to the Republicans' budget, which is so extreme that it would jeopardize our fragile economic recovery," California Sen. Barbara Boxer said.

As Democrats move forward, look for them to continue to place the emphasis on the Republican alternative to Obama's cuts, an alternative that would cut much deeper than what the president has proposed. That's likely Democrats best/only strategy to take the focus off what is a pretty painful set of cuts.

The true test for Democratic senators -- particularly those being targeted by Republicans in 2012 -- will be when the time to vote comes. Do they support what many already acknowledge is a less-than-perfect product? Or do they hold out, siding with Republicans and creating the possibility of a government shutdown?

By Aaron Blake  | February 14, 2011; 5:29 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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