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Posted June 14, 2004 at 6:47pm

After a week of mourning in America, Senate GOP leaders may soon find themselves lamenting their inability to pass a 2005 bicameral budget resolution.

[IMGCAP(1)]And that likely won’t even compare to the grief they can look forward to as spending bills start rolling out of the Senate Appropriations Committee this week.

No, Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) wasn’t bluffing when he told reporters last week that he would give budget writers until today to get enough Republican votes for passage of the budget blueprint. If they didn’t, he warned, he’d start moving forward without it.

True to his word, Stevens has scheduled subcommittee markups for the Defense and Homeland Security spending bills on Wednesday, with full committee action on both bills likely Thursday, according to an aide to Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), the ranking member on Senate Appropriations.

With only five working weeks left until the start of the August recess, Stevens’ need to move the 13 annual spending bills may force Senate Majority Leader Frist (R-Tenn.) to acknowledge — privately, if not publicly — that budget talks with four wayward GOP moderates are hopelessly stalled.

To be sure, there still is about a two-week window of time for Frist to try to bridge the divide that separates the four GOP moderates — Sens. Lincoln Chafee (R.I.), Susan Collins (Maine), John McCain (Ariz.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine) — from the rest of their caucus. If the budget can be adopted by the Senate before the first appropriations bill comes to the floor, budget spending limits would allow Stevens to bring procedural “points of order” against amendments that seek to break those caps.

But given that some aides to the moderates essentially declared the talks dead last week, prospects for a breakthrough before the July Fourth recess remain dim. And once Independence Day is past, the imperative to bring the Defense and Homeland Security spending bills to the floor may be too strong to resist.

All of that might cause one to wonder whether Senate Democrats will take this opportunity to borrow a few bloodhounds and go around the Capitol trying to sniff out the budget.

That, Hill veterans may recall, was exactly the publicity stunt the Republican leadership pulled in May 2002, led by then-Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Frist. They scheduled the canine-aided news conference after the short-lived Democratic majority failed to even bring its committee-passed budget resolution to the floor of the chamber.

By the end of June 2002, Lott was accusing then-Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) of “either inability or incompetence” for Daschle’s failure to bring up a budget resolution.

The threat of that kind of biting criticism is precisely why Frist and his trusty aides keep saying they will not give up on trying to forge a budget compromise. And who knows, maybe they’ll be able to change the minds of Senate GOP conservatives who have so far blocked the moderates’ demands to implement strict spending rules that would make it harder to increase entitlement spending or pass new tax cuts. Or perhaps, they have some other creative compromise up their sleeves.

But assuming the situation is actually what it looks like — namely, a stalemate — Frist is somewhat better off than Daschle was in 2002. Frist can at least say that he secured the chamber’s initial passage of a budget resolution back in March. It’s the House-Senate negotiated budget resolution conference report — whose passage carries enforceable spending limits — that he can’t seem to push through.

So, it may be time to start focusing on how to help Stevens shepherd appropriations through the floor without the all-important protection of the budget and with an $814 billion budget cap — $7 billion less than proposed by the languishing bicameral budget resolution — that was set by last year’s budget.

Stevens has told reporters that he would seek a deal with Byrd to cap spending in the event that no budget agreement could be reached. But Stevens has not approached the increasingly inflexible Byrd about the subject.

“They have had conversations about the appropriations process in general, but they are not working on any plan to circumvent the budget resolution,” said Byrd spokesman Tom Gavin.

That’s probably because Stevens already knows that Byrd is unlikely to agree to self-imposed spending limits, given that Byrd sought during this year’s budget debate to add $11 billion in domestic discretionary spending to the overall $821 billion budget blueprint.

Byrd “would be much more comfortable if the figure were at $832 billion,” said Gavin.

That’s the best indication yet that Byrd will not help Stevens oppose amendments to appropriations bills that go above the committee-allocated figures for each spending bill. And assuming the budget resolution will not be in force, Stevens will not be able to use a point of order to strike down such proposals on the floor.

Senate Democrats are relishing the possibility of having to get only 50 votes — rather than the 60 required to overcome budgetary points of order — to enact spending increases for their favorite projects.

“The majority will be able to rule,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide. “That’s good news for people who believe we ought to be investing in community policing or homeland security.”

The aide also noted that Democrats would seek to increase funding for veterans’ health care and the No Child Left Behind Act, President Bush’s signature education initiative.

Ironically, even though spending would be capped at a lesser number than proposed this year, budget enforcement mechanisms for individual bills would be moot until the cumulative effect threatens to break the overall $814 billion cap.

That means that whatever bill comes up at the end of September could be in for a mess of trouble. If the Republicans hope to keep health care and education costs down, they might be wise to leave the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education spending bill until then.