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Democrats Face Budget Perils

Bill Clark/Roll Call

Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad's (D-N.D.) decision to present a budget plan to the public this week — but not vote on it — is fraught with risks for the majority, aides in both parties say.

Democrats have avoided bringing a budget to the Senate floor for the past two years in part because doing so exposes their Members to unlimited, unpredictable amendment votes — and because a budget is a nonbinding resolution that does little beyond setting internal spending levels or serving as a party platform.

That's especially true this year, when any partisan budget would be dead on arrival in the Republican-run House.

Having a budget this year would also present a problem because, while the public likes deficit reduction generally, almost every specific plan to do so includes unpopular elements.

However, Conrad and other Democrats on the Budget Committee said their plan could provide ideas and an alternative vision for the bipartisan deficit talks — especially given that various efforts to reach a deal have stalled.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a member of the Budget Committee, said Tuesday that Democrats and the president should get behind a strong alternative to Republican proposals that would cut various government programs for the middle class and the poor.

"The vast majority of the people are behind us, and they have got to know that some of us are fighting for what they want. ... I think the American people want to hear an alternative," Sanders said.

Sanders sent a letter to President Barack Obama telling him not to yield to the GOP, and he told reporters that Obama has not done a good enough job fighting for progressive priorities.

"He has got to stand tall and say to the wealthiest people in this country, 'Sorry, you have got to be part of deficit reduction. We're not going to throw millions of kids off Medicaid health insurance and not have you contribute a nickel,'" Sanders said.

But several senior Senate Democratic aides questioned the wisdom of proposing a Democratic budget, especially so long after the April 15 deadline.

"It doesn't mean anything," one aide said, noting that the only thing that matters is bipartisan negotiations on the debt limit.

Indeed, it could get in the way of the party's message, they said.

Democrats feel they have gotten some momentum by putting Republicans on the defensive on tax breaks for the rich and for assorted luxuries such as corporate jets, yachts and racehorses. But a far more ambitious Democratic budget plan calling for perhaps $2 trillion in tax increases over the next decade — something more ambitious and liberal than Obama himself has outlined — would give the GOP a fat target to shoot at, just as Democrats have successfully tarred Republicans with House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) Medicare plan.

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