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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.

A decision by retiring Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad to move a budget blueprint this week has sparked questions over whether he is looking to bolster his legacy at the expense of his Democratic colleagues who are running for re-
election.

“Everyone is scratching their head” about the North Dakota Democrat’s move, one Senate Democratic staffer said. “I think everybody assumes there is some bigger agenda that is driving this because it doesn’t make sense and it’s not going to be helpful.”

The staffer suggested that Conrad might be compelled to try to pass a budget resolution because it is his last year as committee chairman. Conrad’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the topic of his legacy.

House Budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen also seemed to question the need for a Senate markup, given that discretionary spending for fiscal 2013 is set by the Budget Control Act, the compromise law that raised the debt ceiling last summer.

“I think for this year that the main battle, discussion, is going to be over discretionary spending, and therefore the Budget Control Act provisions should govern that,” the Maryland Democrat said after a press conference Thursday. “And with respect to issues like tax policy and other major questions, those will be battled out in the election.”

Still, Van Hollen did put forward his own budget as a foil to House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) proposal, which the House passed last month.

But Van Hollen’s comments echoed those of Democratic leaders who have repeatedly said no budget resolution is needed this year because the BCA suffices.

And while Senate Republicans have been hammering the majority for not passing a full budget plan in the past two fiscal years, Democrats seemed unconcerned, arguing that the criticism doesn’t resonate with most voters outside Washington, D.C.

Conrad came to the Senate in 1986 pledging to reduce the debt and deficit and has earned a reputation as a budget hawk, helping lead various efforts to curb the deficit. For example, he conceived the president’s deficit reduction commission, known as Simpson-Bowles after its co-chairmen. But Senate Democratic leaders in recent years have not sought to pass a budget as Congress has become more politically polarized. Since 2011, the chances of the House Republicans and Senate Democrats coming to a compromise on a budget resolution have been remote at best given the deep partisan divisions and campaign-style tactics.

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.

A Senate Republican aide said they are happy to have a budget debate, which will show that Senate Democrats are not serious about producing a real budget plan.

The aide added that the Conrad situation is the result of a split between Conrad, who has pushed to do his duty as Budget chairman, and Senate Democratic leaders, who want to avoid a budget debate in order to protect their Members from politically tough votes.

“I don’t blame [Conrad] for being frustrated,” the aide said. “Democratic leaders have shut him down at every turn.”

A Senate Democratic leadership aide said there is no divide between Conrad and Democratic leaders and that Conrad has made no secret of his desire to mark up a proposal.

The aide added that Conrad’s decision also reflects the administrative style of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who typically empowers committee chairmen to do their work, after which leaders decide what happens to the legislation.

“Sen. Conrad is in the best position to know how to run his committee,” the aide said.

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