Senate Democrats on Wednesday defeated a Republican plan to scale back health benefits for future retirees and forced their opponents to take a stand on the unpopular proposal.
Pressing their advantage after winning an election to fill an open congressional seat in New York state, Democrats in the Senate staged a vote on the Republican budget plan, which would save trillions of dollars in coming decades by privatizing the Medicare health program for the elderly.
The measure failed, as expected, by a vote of 40 to 57 as five Republicans broke ranks to oppose it.
Democrats say the unpopularity of the Republican plan helped them win Tuesday's election in a conservative district and boosted their prospects in the 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
The architect of the Republican plan, Representative Paul Ryan, warned that political maneuvering could scuttle efforts to tame the national debt and increase the country's borrowing authority before an early August deadline.
"Trying to scare seniors and turning these things into political weapons, what that ends up doing is inflicting political paralysis," Ryan said at conference that drew together some of the main players in the deficit debate.
Polls show widespread public concern about the mounting debt, which has more than doubled in the past 10 years. At the same time, specific proposals to scale back spending or raise taxes risk a public backlash.
Congress must raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling by August 2 to avoid a potentially catastrophic default. Lawmakers from both parties say any increase must be paired with steps to bring stubborn trillion-dollar deficits under control.
Negotiators led by Vice President Joe Biden say they can probably get more than $1 trillion in savings, measured over 10 years, but taxes and healthcare remain sticking points.
Speaking in London, President Barack Obama told British lawmakers that both countries will have to balance painful budget cutting with the need to take care of the unfortunate.
"We have faced such challenges before, and have always been able to balance the need for fiscal responsibility with the responsibilities we have to one another," Obama said.