The U.S. Senate has a longstanding tradition for new members: They are to be seen and not heard. Sen. Joe Manchin, already slammed for missing key votes last December to attend a family Christmas party, also must have missed freshman orientation. The West Virginia Democrat insisted on being heard March 8: "I'll be blunt," he said on the Senate floor. "This whole process does not make a lot of sense to me."
What's got Manchin confused and angry is the Senate's ongoing budget stalemate, which Manchin derided as "political theater." But his verbal attacks aren't limited to colleagues.
"Why are we doing all this when the most powerful person in these negotiations, our president, has failed to lead this debate or offer a serious proposal for spending and cuts that he would be willing to fight for? How does that make sense?" Manchin said.
Manchin's attack on President Barack Obama highlighted growing frustration not only between parties but within.
With the clock ticking toward a March 18 government shutdown, Senate leaders spent most of their time on symbolic votes for spending measures they knew would fail. Senators rejected both the House budget's $61 billion in cuts and Senate Democrats' own budget that reduces spending by less than $5 billion.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called the Republican plan a "lemon" and a "badly broken engine" that eliminates too many programs. By way of an example, Reid cited a "cowboy poetry festival" in his home state of Nevada that is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama responded to the Democrats' insistence that modest cuts are enough by asking, "What planet are they on?"
But what has lawmakers like Manchin upset is the lack of bridge-building aggressiveness-enough to close a $50 billion gap between Democrats and Republicans-from the White House. Officials there, lawmakers say, seem content to let Congress proceed with its circular firing squad.
Obama had promised to step up his profile, tapping Vice President Joe Biden as lead negotiator. Biden held a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill last week. Then he promptly left the country for Finland and Russia.
White House Press secretary Jay Carney insisted that Biden was calling congressional lawmakers from overseas. But that was not good enough for many in the Senate."I am asking President Obama to take this challenge head-on," said Manchin. "When it comes to an issue of significant national importance, the president must lead. Not the majority leader or the speaker, but the president."
Manchin was not the only Democrat upset over a lack of tough negotiations. "The Senate, frankly, has not gone far enough," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri who broke with her party and opposed the Democratic budget bill. She is also up for reelection in 2012. "I think there are way too many people in denial around here about the nature of the problem and how serious it is."
While deliberations continue, the government amassed a record monthly deficit in February of $223 billion-with House Republicans drafting yet another temporary spending measure to keep the government running while the Senate debates. "Frankly, it's embarrassing," said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell-and confusing to new senators like Manchin and, perhaps, most Americans.