WASHINGTON — Days after his Senate “twin” said he could not vote for the fiscal-cliff deal because it did not reduce the deficit sufficiently, Sen. Mark Udall has sought to reposition himself as a deficit hawk, saying that reducing federal expenditures and the debt will be his top priority in the new Congress.
The Colorado Democrat, who is up for re-election next year, gave three interviews last weekend in which he emphasized his new found commitment to reducing the nation’s $16 trillion debt.
In an interview Friday with KUSA-TV in Denver, Udall implied he would take a lead role in Congress to help the federal government get out of the red.
“[T]hat’s the number one job for me: I’m reaching out to the new Congress. We’ve got a new start. We have about 15 new senators … I’m going to work hard,” Udall said.
Udall also appeared on KDVR-TV Friday to emphasize that reducing the deficit will be a challenge for lawmakers. “We’ve done some of the easy things in strengthening our economic situation,” he said, “but we’ve still got to do the hard things.”
In addition, Udall gave an interview with NPR that aired over the weekend that mentioned his support in 2010 for legislation to ban earmark spending.
Udall’s pivot to the right on fiscal issues came three days after he cast his vote for the so-called fiscal cliff package in the wee hours of New Year’s Day. The legislation delayed $109 billion in scheduled spending cuts, raised payroll taxes across the board, and increased marginal income tax rates for higher income earners while leaving them unchanged for lower and middle income taxpayers.
Udall said it was necessary to “keep taxes low for the middle class and ensure that working families and seniors will not be hurt in 2013.”
Udall’s vote and statement contrasted with that of Sen. Michael Bennet, his Colorado Democratic colleague and a close ally. Bennet voted no on the deal and said that “(w)ithout a serious mechanism to reduce the deficit, I cannot support this bill.”
The daylight between the “Senate twins” gave conservative bloggers and establishment Republicans alike an opening to criticize Udall for his fiscal record.
“It left Senator Udall high and dry,” Dick Wadhams, former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, said of Bennet’s vote and announcement. “It left Senator Udall isolated and it showed that Bennet is much more fiscally conservative than Udall.”
Udall has signed on to legislation to give the president line-item veto authority, ban earmark spending, and amend the Constitution to balance the federal budget. Yet Wadhams – the campaign manager for Udall’s Republican opponent former Rep. Bob Schaffer in 2008 — said that Udall’s support for those bills was more about political posturing than serious efforts to reduce the deficit.
“What Senator Udall has really tried to do is to deflect his liberal, Boulder image. The problem is he’s a reliable vote for every budget-busting bill that comes out of the senate,” Wadhams said.
Wadhams’ criticism was the latest volley in the 12-year-long battle over deficit reduction.
Democrats have criticized Republicans for the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 and said the authorizations of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars as well as the creation of a prescription drug entitlement to Medicare should have been paid for with offsetting spending cuts or higher taxes.
Republicans counter that the national debt has grown more in Mr. Obama’s first four years as president than it did in eight years under his predecessor George W. Bush.
Udall, as a member of the House, voted against the Bush tax cuts, the Iraq war, and the Medicare prescription drug benefit. He has indicated he made those votes with one eye on deficit reduction and has supported procedural maneuvers to cut spending.
Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, said Udall’s votes for the procedural maneuvers were “partly political and partly serious. Republicans have been proposing these issues for years to get a handle on the debate on the deficit and spending and Republicans have been using this as a wedge issue. I do think they represent serious attempts to reduce the deficit, but they also give the message, ‘Stop me before I do this again.’”
Bennet’s vote and announcement about the fiscal cliff accord have put Udall in the spotlight in two areas. Udall’s relationship with Bennet was called into question. While the two senators voted alike so often in 2011 that National Journal dubbed them one of ten “Senate twins” in the upper chamber, on Friday Udall sought to reassure voters that two remain close. “Senator Bennet and I have a great relationship,” he said.
In addition, Udall’s leadership will be put to the test in the coming two months when Congress votes on whether or not to raise the debt limit and considers proposed spending cuts.
*Editor’s note: The original version of this story erroneously arrtributed a quote to former U.S. Rep. Bob Schaffer which should have been attributed to Dick Wadhams*