Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad unveiled his budget plan on the Senate floor Monday, but top Congressional leaders weren’t even on Capitol Hill to hear his proposal.
They were across town at the White House to negotiate a plan to reduce the deficit and avoid default, and it’s unlikely that the North Dakota Democrat’s proposal will have any bearing on the talks, according to a Senate Democratic aide.
However, releasing the fiscal 2012 budget does address Republicans’ criticism that Senate Democrats had not offered a spending blueprint, even though the response came late in the game.
“Democratic members of the Senate Budget Committee have worked for weeks to devise a blueprint that they think has merit and deserves to be part of this debate,” Conrad said on the Senate floor Monday.
He introduced his budget proposal as Congressional leaders and the White House are in intense negotiations to craft a deficit reduction package that would win enough support in Congress to pass an increase in the debt ceiling. Congress has until Aug. 2 to act, or it risks allowing the nation to begin to default on its debts.
Republicans argue that by not taking up a budget, Democrats have shirked their basic legislative responsibility to make difficult choices on dividing up funding in tough economic times. They also charge that Senate Democratic leaders are delaying the budget in order to protect their party from taking politically unpopular votes.
It’s been a difficult year for the budget and appropriations process, which was delayed by a fight over fiscal 2011 spending that wasn’t resolved until April.
Then House Republicans unveiled their 2012 budget blueprint, which included reforms to Medicare and Medicaid. Democrats cast the reforms as efforts to reduce the deficit on the backs of the elderly and the poor, and they won a House special election for New York’s 26th district in May in part by highlighting the GOP budget and its proposed changes to Medicare.
Democratic reaction to the House GOP budget also made it difficult for Conrad and other fiscally conservative Democrats to take on entitlement reforms recommended by the president’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. Conrad served on the panel and supported its work.
In May, Conrad had trouble getting all 12 Democratic members of the Budget Committee to back an earlier draft of the budget, which included a 3 percent surtax on millionaires pushed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). With the 11 Republicans on the panel set to vote against it, Conrad needed a unanimous vote among Democrats to pass the measure. But the surtax needed to win over Sanders alienated others, including Sens. Mark Begich (Alaska) and Bill Nelson (Fla.).
The Democrats met behind closed doors until they worked out their differences, and they unveiled their product Monday.