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Conrad Budget Plan Puzzling

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo
“Everyone is scratching their head” over Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad moving a budget blueprint this week, a Democratic staffer said.

So it was a surprise to Democratic leaders when Conrad indicated in a Fox News interview April 8 that he wanted to mark up a 10-year plan to guide the lame-duck session after the elections when major decisions such as expiring taxes will need to be addressed.

“We’ve got to have a long-term plan,” Conrad said. “The only way we have a long-term plan that is sustainable is to get Republicans and Democrats to agree. ... And how does that get done? I don’t think it’s going to happen with a vote on the Senate floor before the election.”

Though aides said there is still no plan to bring a Democratic budget resolution to the floor, one Democratic leadership aide noted that Conrad’s budget could serve the purpose of laying down a marker against the budget approved last month by the Republican-controlled House, which set discretionary spending at $1.028 trillion.

Senate Democrats favor $1.047 trillion in discretionary spending for fiscal 2013, which was stipulated in the BCA. Democrats have decried House Republican attempts to reduce spending beyond the BCA limits, saying the issue could lead to another showdown over a government shutdown in September.

The Conrad budget would also allow Senate Democrats to lay out their own path for reducing the deficit over the next decade, the aide said.

But Conrad’s move would also put Democrats, who control 53 votes in the Senate, in the awkward position of having to oppose their own budget.

Under Senate rules, any Senator can force a vote on taking up a budget after April 1, and only 51 votes are needed to force a budget to the floor. If Republicans were to try to force the Democratic budget to the floor, Democrats would likely oppose in order to avoid a politically painful budget vote-a-rama.

During Senate budget debates, amendment votes are not limited. A budget vote-a-rama would likely expose Democratic divisions on dozens of hot-button political issues including abortion, guns, the environment and entitlement programs.

Last year, the Senate voted on whether to take up four budget proposals, but none won the 51 votes needed to trigger a vote-a-rama and none was sponsored by a Democrat.

A best-case scenario for Democrats may be the Conrad budget dying in committee. Democrats control 12 votes on the panel, and Conrad would need all of them to pass his proposal. None of the 11 Republicans will likely vote for the Democratic package.

That could prove difficult. For example, Democratic leaders support repealing tax breaks for oil and gas companies, but Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), a member of the committee, likely would not vote for a budget that calls for raising taxes on one of the major industries in his state.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), also a member of the committee, is facing a tough re-
election campaign and will probably be reluctant to back anything that could be portrayed by his opponent as a tax increase.

Budget Committee member Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent who caucuses with Democrats, would likely oppose a plan that calls for a reduction in benefits for Medicare or Medicaid — entitlement programs that experts say need to be trimmed to reduce the long-term deficit.

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