Head ‘Em Off at the Impasse

Posted May 10, 2004 at 6:53pm

It’s week seven of the budget resolution impasse, and House and Senate Republicans appear no closer to a deal than they were when they passed their respective blueprints back in March.

Conventional wisdom says that without an agreement by the end of this week, the prospects of

getting a budget this year will begin to evaporate rather quickly.

But fingernails haven’t been bitten down to the nubs just yet. With unwavering cheerfulness, Congressional budget spokespeople point out that budget negotiations have often lasted well into June.

Though doubtlessly unintended, such reminders only lend credence to the perception that House and Senate negotiators are not likely to strike a deal this week.

Indeed, no meetings between the House and Senate Budget committees have been scheduled for this week, although a spokesman for House Budget Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) said the meetings held so far have been largely “ad hoc” anyway.

So, here’s where the budget resolution stands, three weeks after the statutory deadline for passage. (Don’t be surprised if it’s pretty much where it was at the beginning of last week.)

Four Senate GOP moderates — Olympia Snowe (Maine), Susan Collins (Maine), John McCain (Ariz.), and Lincoln Chafee (R.I.) — plus moderate Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.) continue to reject what they consider are gimmicky budget plans that try to insulate new tax cuts from strict spending restraints.

House Republican leaders complain that their Senate counterparts can’t even guarantee passage for proposals the Senate has floated in the past couple of weeks. Senate Republican leaders, on the other hand, gripe that the House is being unrealistic about the extent to which Senate honchos can rein in their rogue moderates.

And if there’s an organized plan for resolving this standoff, no one is owning up to it.

So, just what are the consequences of all this bickering — or, as some might say, poor planning?

That question might best be examined through the prism of how it all affects the legacy of Senate Budget Chairman Don Nickles (R-Okla.).

For years, Nickles yearned to hold the gavel of the budget panel. Just last year, he got his wish. Now, as he prepares to retire from Congress, Nickles may find his second and last budget resolution slipping through his fingers, all because of a handful of Senate Republican moderates who care more about paying for tax breaks with spending cuts than they do about whether Nickles is able to leave a lasting imprint on Congress.

But there’s always a silver lining, and with the right spin, Nickles might be able to make it work.

In similarly tough budget negotiations last year, Nickles had the foresight to lock in an $814 billion discretionary spending cap for 2005. That, coincidentally, is the same number the Senate Budget Committee approved this year — but it’s a hefty $7 billion less than what the Senate passed. And if no new budget resolution is enacted, $814 billion would become the default spending limit for Senate appropriators this year.

Forget about “pay as you go” spending restraints. Nickles could cut spending by $5 billion more than the House has proposed, simply by hightailing it out of this year’s budget negotiations.

Of course, depending on the outcome of budget talks this week, Nickles may not have any other choice.

Because the budget resolution could protect several tax cut proposals from filibuster through the reconciliation process, it appears that not having a budget would have much the same effect as if the Senate-passed budget were adopted by both chambers — another potential feather in Nickles’ cap.

The Senate budget resolution primarily shields three tax cuts from filibusters — the expansion of the 10 percent income-tax bracket, the child tax credit, and the elimination of the so-called marriage penalty. And nearly all the prickly moderates agree that each of these should be extended — and that getting 60 votes to overcome any potential filibuster would be a snap.

So the bottom line is that if Nickles holds out for nothing he could get almost everything.

Of course, the downside of not having a Senate budget resolution is that any tax-cut bill could be used by Democrats as a vehicle for all manner of extraneous amendments. Just look at what they’ve been able to do on the international corporate tax bill now on the Senate floor — adding everything from a rollback of Bush administration overtime rules to a proposed extension of unemployment benefits.

Having a budget resolution in their back pocket would help GOP lawmakers fend off those types of amendments. It should also be noted that Republicans have some pride at stake when it comes to moving a budget resolution. In 2002, Senate Republicans ridiculed Democrats for not being able to come to a budget agreement. Nickles surely doesn’t want the notoriety of being part of that dynamic on his way out the door.

Meanwhile, on the House side, the failure of the two chambers to agree on a budget would likely force House leaders to “deem” — that is, unofficially enforce — their budget resolution, thereby forcing appropriators to abide by an overall $819 billion spending cap.

If that happened, the real fight would be punted to House and Senate appropriators, who would have to deal with the $5 billion discrepancy in each chamber’s spending limits.

But hey, even if the Senate were able to pump up it’s austere budget cap to the House’s $819 billion, it would still be less than the president’s proposed $823 billion budget.