Democrats Look to 2002 for Budget Lessons

Posted March 9, 2007 at 6:29pm

As they take the first step this week toward passing a fiscal 2008 budget resolution, Senate Democrats have one overriding goal — making sure history doesn’t repeat itself.

Democrats say they are determined to avoid the internal divisions and intransigence that derailed them in 2002, the last time they attempted as the majority party to craft a spending blueprint.

“I do think there’s a different level of responsibility and excitement about truly setting the priorities for this country through the budget,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who as a member of the Budget panel expects to help her party approve its fiscal 2008 budget in committee this week.

Indeed, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) painted a dire picture of what would happen if Democrats don’t push through a budget this year.

“If you fail to come up with a budget resolution, it creates a lot of problems for you down the line,” Durbin said, noting that “the appropriations process completely disintegrated last year” when Republicans failed for the second time in three years to produce a bicameral budget plan.

Of course, the difference between the Democrats’ last attempt and the GOP failures in 2004 and 2006 is that the Senate actually voted on its own plan in the latter two instances, even though Senate leaders ultimately were unable to resolve their differences with the House.

The Democratic failure in 2002 was notable primarily because it was the first time since modern budget rules were adopted in the 1970s that the Senate did not even bring its own plan to the floor.

But Democratic Senators and aides vowed they would not have the same problems they did five years ago.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) “is determined to get the budget and appropriations bills done on time and with limits set,” said one Senate Democratic leadership aide. “It’s a basic part of leading.”

Indeed, one former Senate GOP budget aide said the dynamics are different because Democrats are looking to 2008 as an election to not only hold their Congressional majorities but also to capture the White House.

“They’ve got to show they can govern,” the aide said.

In 2002, several factors contributed to the demise of the fiscal 2003 budget resolution in the Senate, including — by all accounts — a micromanaging Majority Leader, several stubborn Democratic Senators, and the fact that reconciling a Democratic budget plan with the then-Republican-led House would have been nearly impossible.

But the failure is still a sore subject with many Democrats, including returning Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (N.D.), who was reluctant to look back.

Asked to reflect on the difference between 2002 and this year, Conrad simply said, “It’s all I can do just trying to put this budget together without thinking about that.”

The trouble for Conrad in 2002 started almost immediately in committee, when two Democratic panel members — Sen. Russ Feingold (Wis.) and former Sen. Fritz Hollings (S.C.) — objected to his budget plan because they did not believe it was fiscally responsible enough.

In fact, Conrad’s 2002 plan was criticized by Republicans and Democrats alike for relying on gimmicks — such as not counting nearly $245 billion in defense spending as part of the bottom line — to achieve Democratic goals of paying down the debt while increasing spending for education and health care.

Feingold and Hollings voted for the budget in committee but vowed to oppose it on the floor if changes were not made.

Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans recalled that then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) was too involved in the committee process, making it difficult for Conrad to break the impasse before the measure passed his panel.

Daschle’s “style — and sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t — was to make himself a de facto member of every committee,” explained one former Senate Democratic aide. Daschle did that, the aide explained, “to resolve problems before they came to the floor,” but on occasion, as on the budget that year, it backfired.

Barely a month after the committee approved the measure, Feingold remained the primary holdout, and Daschle was unable to get him to budge, said the former Senate Democratic aide. Because of the impasse, Daschle finally announced in late spring that the Senate would instead look for a way to set a discretionary spending cap, rather than pass an entire budget.

Both Republican and Democratic aides said Daschle finally decided that pursuing a budget that year would be futile given that Republicans still controlled the House and were unlikely to negotiate on a compromise budget plan.

“The budget is a painful, painful week for the majority. You expose your guys to a lot of very tough political amendments,” noted one former Senate GOP budget aide. “… There wasn’t going to be hope of them reconciling their plan with the House that year.”

The former Senate Democratic aide agreed that “it was definitely an actual calculation” that Daschle did not want to subject Democrats to politically tough votes when a bicameral budget plan was unlikely to emerge.

“I felt bad for Kent Conrad, because he had to take most of the heat for that, and I don’t think it was his fault,” noted the former Senate GOP budget aide.

Still, Democrats as a whole paid a heavy political price for their inability to pass a budget that year. Because GOP majorities had, to that point, been able to pass a spending blueprint every year except 1998, Senate Republicans ridiculed the Democrats’ difficulties, going so far as to hold a press conference in which they brought in actual bloodhounds to sniff around the Capitol for the Democratic budget.

“I was shocked when they said, ‘No, we won’t do a budget,’” said Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who was serving as Minority Leader at the time. Lott said the Democrats’ inability to pass a budget was, in part, responsible for their losses at the ballot box that November.

But this year, Democrats say they are prepared, and that Reid, whose style is to let committee chairmen run their own shows, has already given Conrad “wide berth and his full support to try to get a budget resolution passed,” said the Senate Democratic leadership aide.

Plus, Conrad already has given a handful of presentations to the Caucus about what Members should realistically expect from his fiscal 2008 budget.

“I’m encouraged, and the reason I am is because Chairman Conrad has done a superb job of laying out the consequences of not having a budget,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a panel member.

Stabenow said having a Democratic House majority makes the need to pass a budget even more imperative, and because of that, Senate Democratic leaders have emphasized party unity at every step of the way.

“Sen. Reid and Sen. Conrad have done an outstanding job of bringing everyone together around the fact that we will have a budget resolution,” Stabenow said. “The first thing is, we will have a budget, and the second thing is, we will be unified.”

Even Senate Budget ranking member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said he believes Democrats will find a way to pass a budget this year, given that “from a numbers standpoint, they have room to spare.”

He added, “Even Humpty Dumpty could balance this budget in five years.”

Still, one potential snag from 2002 remains: Feingold.

Though he said Conrad “has always consulted with me,” Feingold declined to say whether he would be supporting the Democratic budget this year.

“I’m not ready to talk about it,” he said.