Could Democrats Work Around the 'Budget Bullies'?

GOP senators have rebuffed attempts to secure unanimous consent to get to conference, most recently Tuesday when McConnell objected to a request by Murray, above. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

As Democrats and Republicans continue to spar over the budget process, there's more than meets the eye to the battles on the Senate floor.

Democrats contend that their GOP counterparts are blocking the move to convene a House-Senate conference committee to work out details of the fiscal 2014 budget resolution after spending years decrying the failure of Senate Democrats to adopt such a resolution.

Past guidance from the parliamentarian's office would indicate that a move to go to conference cannot be filibustered, multiple sources familiar with Senate rules and precedents said, but there are unresolved complications about debate time and the possibility of a lengthy sequence of votes that could rival a budget "vote-a-rama." In other words, Democrats might be able to work around GOP objections to getting to a conference on the budget but not without expending a fair amount of time and energy.

GOP senators have rebuffed multiple attempts to secure unanimous consent to get to conference, with the most recent occurrence Tuesday when Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., objected to a request by Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash.

“Some Republicans say they want to negotiate a 'framework' behind closed doors before going to conference, but that is what a budget really is, a framework that lays out our values and priorities and helps us plan for our country’s future," Murray said. "And I think that framework is exactly what we ought to be debating in a formal and public conference, and there’s no reason to wait.”

Monday evening, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, objected after Reid denied his request to only agree to a conference that allows no increase in taxes.

Reid thought this was akin to changing the rules of the game after the game was over, and he went so far as to call Cruz a "schoolyard bully." Reid's staff didn't shy away from the characterization, actually posting the exchange on YouTube.

"Republicans refuse to play the game unless we let them win. And, like schoolyard bullies, if Republicans can’t win, they will take the ball and go home," Reid said Tuesday. "But this latest stunt is a nonstarter."

Reid then suggested that the House GOP is afraid of public budget negotiations. But if the Republican minority couldn't filibuster the budget resolution, then why couldn't Reid just call a vote?

One Democratic aide said that the decision either way would require an opinion from the Senate parliamentarian, calling it "absurd" that this process debate is even a possibility since requests to get into budget conferences are often handled by unanimous consent.

The fact is that questions about how this process works might raise new questions about flaws in the 1974 Budget Act that was designed to expedite consideration of congressional budgets.

The law itself specifies, "Debate on any debatable motion or appeal related to the conference report (or a message between Houses) shall be limited to 1 hour," which past parliamentary guidance has said would be the relevant standard.

G. William Hoagland, a former GOP staff director of the Senate Budget Committee and now a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said he has discussed this matter in the past and come away with the belief that you couldn't filibuster going to conference on a budget resolution.

Even then, there's always the possibility Democrats could face other procedural complications that make such votes unrealistic. Plus, Reid is trying to get consent to insert the text of the Senate's budget resolution into the "shell" of the House's budget resolution, which could create additional hurdles.