GWEN IFILL: The budget battle took center stage once again today in the Senate, as lawmakers prepared for another round of head-to-head debate.
WOMAN: The majority leader.
GWEN IFILL: Senate Democrats say a Republican plan to slash government spending is a reckless numbers game.
SEN. HARRY REID (D-Nev.), majority leader: The Republican plan they want to push through the Senate is all smoke and -- and mirrors. It cuts the deficit in the name of a stronger future, but cuts the most important ways we strengthen our future. It's counterproductive. It's bad policy. It is going to cost America 700,000 jobs. This isn't some figure I just picked out of the air.
GWEN IFILL: And Senate Republicans say it would be irresponsible to pass a budget bill to keep government running that doesn't drastically reduce spending.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-Ky.), minority leader: We're averaging about $4 billion a day in debt this year, and Democrats want to cut $4.7 billion and call it a day. Anything more, they say, is draconian -- draconian.
I will tell you what's draconian. Draconian is what happens if Democrats don't get real about our nation's fiscal crisis.
GWEN IFILL: Congress has until March 18 to come to agreement on a budget plan. But the two major parties have vastly different approaches.
Democrats propose reducing last year's spending levels by about $5 billion, while Republicans support an alternative passed by the House last month that would slash nearly 10 times that amount, $57 billion. The $50 billion gap is so wide that House Republicans are already working on a backup plan, an additional temporary extension that would contain billions in more cuts from the budget.
Democrats, like John Kerry, said that idea is merely a delaying tactic.
SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-Mass.), Foreign Relations Committee chairman: No wonder Americans are frustrated, Madam President. All we do is bounce from one short-term, stopgap solution, Band-Aid approach to another, always deferring the tough decisions and the adult conversation, which is exactly what the American people sent us here to engage in.
GWEN IFILL: But Republicans, like Bob Corker, said another standoff looms because Democrats are simply not willing to cut deeply enough.
SEN. BOB CORKER (R-Tenn.): ... that trying to solve this problem by only dealing with discretionary spending makes no sense. I mean, if you did -- if you did away with all discretionary spending during this year, all discretionary spending, including defense, you still would not have a balanced budget.
GWEN IFILL: Critics on both sides of the aisle argue that the Senate debate ignores the long-term problem.
At a Senate hearing today, the co-chairman of the president's fiscal commission challenged lawmakers to, among other things, tackle Social Security.
Former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson:
ALAN SIMPSON, National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform: If you can't get Social Security solvent for 75 years, and this Congress cannot do that, you can forget everything. You will never get to Medicare, Medicaid and defense.
GWEN IFILL: Former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, a Democrat:
ERSKINE BOWLES, National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform: I know these cuts are politically difficult. But this is not a decision we can propose -- postpone. We have got to act, and we have got to act now.
GWEN IFILL: Senators were expected to cast their first votes this week.
Joining me now for a budget update is NewsHour political editor David Chalian.
David, tell me if I'm wrong, but haven't we been here before?
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, we were just here, in some regard. You remember, it was just a couple weeks ago that the Congress passed that two-week extension where they did a little bit of the work. They cut $4 billion out of this year's budget and extended the funding of the government for a two-week period to allow for negotiations.
What this is now all about is how do we get from here to Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year? There are only six months left. We're -- we're six months into this, and this is not already solved, halfway there. We only have half the year to go, and they have to figure out a way how to fund the government from now until then.
GWEN IFILL: It feels like there's a lot of brinkmanship going on, not only within the Senate but also between the Senate and the White House.
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, there's no doubt. Within the Senate, what you're going to see tomorrow are two votes on these competing bills, right?
You have that House bill that cuts $61 billion from this year's funding, and then you have a Senate bill which is cutting far less. They're still about $52 billion apart. And that's where the negotiations need to move and solve that gap, close that gap.
But what Harry Reid wants to do, Gwen, is he says, we need to put both versions up and have them fail, so that everybody can see there's no choice but to negotiate, to get in the room, and mostly -- talking to a Reid adviser today on the Hill, he really wants to do this for John Boehner, the speaker of the House, because he -- he wants John Boehner to be able to go back to those 87 Republican freshmen, many of them Tea Party-backed, and say: Guys, we -- we took this bill as far as it can go. The Senate will not pass it. It has failed. Now we need to start compromising.
So, that is what Harry Reid is trying to do here.
GWEN IFILL: We have also heard some Republicans and now today a couple of Democrats saying, where is the White House in all of this?
Where is the White House in all of this?
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, they're involved. You will recall, last week, President Obama appointed Vice President Biden to head up a meeting. It was last Thursday up on Capitol Hill, bipartisan meeting, bicameral meeting to try to hammer...
GWEN IFILL: And Vice President Biden promptly left for Finland.
DAVID CHALIAN: And promptly left for Finland. Republicans noticed that and made sure to make note of that.
But White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley, the budget director, Jack Lew, involved on a daily basis. Bill Daley was on the phone with Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, yesterday -- Eric Cantor pressing the White House, saying, what is your plan to close that $52 billion difference between both sides right now?
The -- the pressure now is looking to the White House and the Senate Democrats to say, the Republicans have passed their plan in the House. It's not going to get much further. Where is your plan that is a serious plan? Because the ones they have now really just extends the levels, with a minor cut. Everybody, when you talk to Democrats up on the Hill, say they're going to need to go further to meet the Republicans somewhat along the way.
GWEN IFILL: We heard Joe Manchin, who is senator from -- freshman senator from West Virginia, we have heard at least one other Democrat, raising questions about leadership and Republicans all of a sudden talking a lot about presidential leadership. What is that about?
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, I find this fascinating, because normally you would hear the Republican talking point now: The president's budget raises taxes, a tax-and-spend liberal.
They're not. They're trying to chip away at what is a perceived strength of President Obama's. People in polls say they like him personally, even if they question some of his policies. This is an attempt, a year out from the presidential election and the re-election campaign, for Republicans to start chipping away at the Obama leadership, calling this failed leadership that a budget has not passed yet to then get to the character issue that may be far more beneficial to them politically, they think, the Republicans do, than actually just sort of the usual policy differences.
GWEN IFILL: That's what Republicans are doing. But what are Democrats who are criticizing him...
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, when you see Joe Manchin, Gwen, he's from West Virginia.
GWEN IFILL: Yes.
DAVID CHALIAN: It's a very red state. He's up for reelection. And Barack Obama is not going to win West Virginia next year in 2012.
GWEN IFILL: What about Claire McCaskill?
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, and he may not win Missouri either. These are tough states, where these Democrats from these red states need to start separating themselves a little bit from Obama, the president, who is going to be at the top of the ticket next year. And they want to make sure they have a little bit of independence from him.
GWEN IFILL: Is the White House giving them a pass?
DAVID CHALIAN: I think they're giving them a pass right now. We will see when the rubber hits the road and they need votes to get a budget passed. But, for right now, they're going to let these folks breathe.
GWEN IFILL: We expect votes tomorrow?
DAVID CHALIAN: We expect votes tomorrow, about 3:00 in the afternoon, Eastern time.
GWEN IFILL: OK.
David Chalian, thanks a lot.
DAVID CHALIAN: Sure.