Vulnerable Senate Democrats got a political gift Thursday – a chance to vote for a budget crafted by both parties and endorsed by President Donald Trump, a budget they can tout to their bases and the crucial centrist voters who control their political fates.
It’s a spending plan that allowed Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., facing re-election in a state Trump won by 19 points last year, to abandon her long-standing aversion to massive government spending bills and support this one. Democrats in other states Trump carried also voted for the bill.
“This was a bipartisan compromise,” McCaskill explained. “This is how it’s supposed to work. We’re supposed to come together and find places of agreement.”
Republicans now control 52 of the Senate’s 100 seats. Democrats have to defend 23 seats next year and Republicans only nine. The challenge for Democrats: Ten incumbents are running in states Trump won last year.
Seven are viewed as too close to call by the website Inside Elections in a nonpartisan analysis: McCaskill and Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Bill Nelson of Florida, Jon Tester of Montana and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin. Also on the shaky list could be Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan is seen as safe. They all voted for the budget Thursday. The Senate passed the bill 79-18.
McCaskill would have opened herself to “the ultimate obstruction charge” by a Republican opponent in 2018 if she’d voted against the budget bill to make a political point — and thus against items important to Missouri, said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, where she analyzes U.S. Senate and governors’ races.
“She gets to have it both ways. When she was voting against Obama, she was breaking with her party, being independent,” Duffy said. “Now she gets to break with her party, be independent and do what’s right for the state.”
It’s a turnaround for McCaskill. She had voted against six of these big budget packages since being elected to Congress in 2006. Only once, in January 2014, when the federal government was coming out of a shutdown, did the former Missouri state auditor overcome her distaste for this type of legislation, often packed with special-interest giveaways, to vote yes.
McCaskill’s choice makes practical and political sense, said Marvin Overby, a University of Missouri political science professor.
The senator faces the tricky task of figuring out how to stand up to Trump, as her liberal base demands, without alienating voters in her state who are sympathetic to him.
McCaskill wants to portray herself for re-election purposes as a centrist who is willing to work with Trump but also can serve as a moderating influence on his administration, Overby said. Casting a no vote that could shut down the government in the president’s first few months in office would run counter to that goal, he said.
“She’s trying to find places where she can work with him and not appear obstructionist,” he added. “I think that’s part of how she’s going to sell herself for the 2018 race.”
Her vote also offers a sharp contrast to potential challenger Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo. Wagner, who is said to be weighing a Senate bid, voted no on Wednesday.
“The American people elected Republicans in November to shake up Washington,” Wagner said, “and yet this 1,700-page monster blocked 160 common-sense conservative priorities.”
Spending measures such as the one considered this week, called omnibuses, are sprawling, catchall measures that stuff many disparate government funding measures into one mammoth bill, usually hundreds of pages long.
“Essentially what it is is a bunch of people in a back room negotiating how we should spend trillions of dollars,” said McCaskill.
Often, McCaskill was one of just a handful of Democrats who voted against omnibuses endorsed and signed by President Barack Obama.
“What I’ve found in the past, when we’ve had time to scrub them, is that stuff was getting into these bills that had never seen the light of day before,” McCaskill said. “There had been no cost-benefit analysis, no hearings. . . . That’s why I voted no.”
McCaskill said she had “all hands on deck” in her office this week going through every line of the 1,665-page bill before she’d commit to vote for it.
“We are comfortable it . . . prioritizes the right things and there’s no kick in the shins for ordinary people in it,” she said.
The bill includes funding for a number of causes McCaskill supports and can tout as she campaigns. Among them: $1.1 billion for 14 Super Hornet fighter jets, which are manufactured in St. Louis, and $2 billion for the National Institutes of Health, which provided nearly $509 million in grant money last year to research institutions in Missouri.
The bill also provides more than $1 billion to address the opioid crisis — overdose deaths in Missouri are at record highs — and $1.3 billion to provide a permanent health care fix for more than 22,000 retired miners and their widows. The miners had been set to lose those benefits at the end of last year, when Congress passed a four-month extension.
McCaskill says she’s open to working with Trump on shared goals such as investing in infrastructure and lowering prescription-drug prices. She’s been invited to the White House twice. The first time, she declined in order to attend a previously scheduled meeting with the Missouri teachers’ association. Trump’s aides had said he would follow up with a phone call, but he never did.
The second time, McCaskill attended a reception for senators hosted by the president and first lady Melania Trump.
“I would be happy to visit with the president on anything,” McCaskill said, “but I think he’s focused most of his time and energy in only working with Republicans.”