With pundits, economists and even some lawmakers warning of a fiscal policy meltdown by year’s end, the Senate will embark today on a series of budget votes that appear designed for political show and are destined to fail.
“These are people basically positioning themselves on budget issues,” Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said.
Senate Democratic and Republican leaders agreed to hold up to five votes today. Those will include dueling votes in which one party introduces the other party’s plan to make the point that it can’t pass.
For example, Senate Budget ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) will present a resolution that mimics President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2013 budget plan, and Democrats are expected to offer the House-passed blueprint authored by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
“Sessions bringing up President Obama’s budget — I don’t think that is because of his loyalty to the president or admiration for his approach. It’s clearly to put people on the record,” Durbin said. “The same thing is true with Paul Ryan’s budget.”
Nevertheless, “they are entitled to it under the rules, and we will have our votes,” Durbin continued. The Senate is expected to vote down all five proposals.
But even as the leaders tee up futile budget votes, Durbin said that he continues working with the “gang of six,” a group of three Democrats and three Republicans who have sought to put together a deficit reduction package similar to the one proposed by the president’s fiscal commission. That commission, known as Bowles-Simpson, was headed by former Clinton administration Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), and it called for a $4 trillion cut in the deficit over 10 years by tackling entitlements, spending and tax policy.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), a gang of six member, said the group hopes to develop a plan that could be the model for action in the upcoming lame-duck session.
“I think that is possible; I mean, something has to be done,” he said.
He noted that the group’s work was complicated by the failure of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction, also known as the super committee.
“We had some differences that were still unresolved relative to taxes and health care, and they are still there and we are still discussing things,” Chambliss said.
The super committee was established as part of the deal to raise the debt ceiling, and its failure to produce a $1.2 trillion deficit reduction deal triggered automatic spending cuts, known as sequestration, that are set to take effect in January.
Efforts in Congress have begun to undo sequestration because many Republicans in particular believe that the Defense Department cannot absorb its share of the cuts without compromising national security. In order to be successful, the gang of six would likely have to solve that problem as well as the larger deficit issue.
Sen. Bob Corker agreed that the budget votes do not address the deficit problem, given their partisan nature, but he also blamed Senate Democrats for not passing a budget resolution.
“There is no question ... we’d be much better off if we actually had a budget process and it went through committee and came to the floor that way,” the Tennessee Republican said.
“I think it’s really pretty depressing to know that we can’t handle one of the number one responsibilities that we have here in the Senate,” Corker continued.
Republicans have been lashing out at Senate Democrats for not producing a budget resolution for the past two years.
“They’re not doing what they need to do,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), also a member of the gang of six.
But Democrats argue that they fulfilled their duty by passing the Budget Control Act, the bipartisan deal that raised the debt ceiling, which also deemed discretionary spending levels for fiscal 2013. The discretionary spending cap is a key function of a budget resolution and allows for a more orderly appropriations process.
“It’s important to stop playing games with whether or not there is a budget and focus on the Budget Control Act,” said Sen. Ben Nelson, a member of the Appropriations Committee.
“For others to be offering budgets right now is just part of Washington silliness that gets involved in presidential politics,” the Nebraska Democrat continued.
The votes today are essentially a replay of last year, when the Obama and Ryan budgets both failed, 0-97 and 40-57, respectively. Similar vote tallies are expected this time around.
With Ryan’s budget, which would overhaul Medicare, a vote in favor of the plan would open up Senate Republicans to attacks from Democrats that they want to cut the program while cutting taxes for the wealthy.
With Obama’s plan, Nelson said he doesn’t expect to vote for it again this year. He said his votes reflect his belief that the president’s proposal is typically the working document that is molded into the budget resolution.
“That’s nothing new because [Obama’s budget] is the starting point, not the ending point,” Nelson said.
Along with the Obama and Ryan budgets, the Senate is expected to vote on budget proposals from Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Mike Lee (R-Utah.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Last year, the Senate voted 42-55 against Toomey’s plan and 7-90 against Paul’s.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.