Democrats Hope to ‘Break Chain’ on Budget

Posted April 25, 2008 at 6:17pm

If Congress has learned anything from years past, it is that there are a few simple ingredients needed to stall a budget resolution: a swing vote from Maine, a faction of House Members making seemingly unattainable demands, a fight over arcane budget rules and, of course, a highly charged election year.

That’s the situation Democrats find themselves in now as they seek to cobble together a bicameral budget blueprint that will allow them to protect their high-priority legislation as well as set the stage for the spending battles to come with the White House.

“We’re going to break the chain of failure,” Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) confidently predicted last week.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who has also been meeting to try to break the deadlock, echoed Conrad’s conviction: “I’m optimistic. It’s very important for us to get a budget done.”

But other Congresses have not been so lucky, and there’s no indication yet that the 2008 budget resolution won’t be felled by some of the same circumstances that prevented both Democratic- and Republican-controlled Congresses in 2002, 2004 and 2006 from producing a House- Senate budget.

“Doing a budget in an election year is problematic because of the fact that people don’t want to cast tough votes” said former Senate Budget Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who now serves as ranking member. “So when you bring a budget to the floor in an election year, the stakes are much higher than when you bring it in a non-election year.”

In 2002, the Senate Democratic majority did not even bring a resolution to the floor, but the likelihood of it having been reconciled with the GOP-led House was remote anyway.

But in 2004 and 2006, much of the inability to forge a budget came down to a bloc of conservative House Republicans battling with moderates in the Senate, such as Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), over how much to spend or whether to institute pay-as-you-go budget rules.

In those years, Snowe often found herself in the cross hairs, as a proponent of PAYGO and higher spending limits — two positions on which conservatives were very much opposed. She also resisted her party’s efforts to use budget reconciliation rules to ram through tax cuts that weren’t paid for, and many times, she has found herself part of a handful of Republicans whose stances effectively killed their party’s chances of passing a budget.

This year, the dynamic is eerily similar. House Blue Dog Democrats have said they want to make sure that any legislation dealing with the alternative minimum tax adheres to PAYGO rules by being offset by budget cuts or tax increases elsewhere. They want to do that by giving the Senate the ability to bypass a likely GOP-led filibuster, but Snowe has firmly rejected the inclusion of filibuster-busting reconciliation instructions in the budget package.

Snowe said she objects to both parties attempting to use reconciliation as a way to avoid building bipartisan consensus on tax issues.

Of course, her vote wouldn’t be so important this year if it weren’t for Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), who has made a far trickier demand of his majority party — that they rein in domestic spending in the budget. Having written Bayh off, Democrats have looked to Snowe as the crucial vote to get.

“In a 51-49 Senate, any one Senator — in this case, Sen. Bayh — can tip the balance,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “It puts us in a position where we can’t move forward in terms of what we’d like to do.”

Snowe called it ironic that she is playing much the same role in both Democratic- and Republican-controlled Congresses.

“In 2003, in opposing the president’s tax cuts, you know, several of us introduced the concept of offsets with respect to tax cuts, and that’s the same vein that’s running through all of this, as it turns out,” Snowe said. “Everything is turned on its head politically. But I seem to be still standing where I was a few years ago and years before that.”

Though PAYGO “is disparaged equally on both sides” of the aisle, a former Senate budget aide said, “it is the only rope that’s holding the [spending] boat at the dock. It requires hard choices and it makes it difficult to pass certain measures because of the required offsets.”

But the Blue Dogs already have lost the reconciliation fight as far as Conrad is concerned, particularly since Senators failed to get even a simple majority last year when they tried to comply with Blue Dog demands that the 2007 AMT patch be paid for.

“I’ve been very clear that reconciliation instructions are not going to be able to be included if we are to get a budget passed here in the Senate,” Conrad said last week. But he said he met with Blue Dogs on Thursday to explore “other options for how we could send a message with respect to the importance of offsetting AMT.” That could include forcing another Senate vote on the issue this year, even though it would likely fail.

Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, said people are bargaining in good faith but that the Senate has been less committed to fiscal responsibility.

“We’re just trying to live within a sensible budget,” he said. “We want as few exceptions as possible.”

But Senate Budget Committee member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said House Members need to understand that their goals are unrealistic.

“The discussions going on between the House and the Senate are about what is possible and what is not possible,” she explained.

Still, solving the impasse over AMT and reconciliation is the key to making sure Democrats do not fall into the election-year trap. It also would give them a powerful, if esoteric, argument for their ability to govern.

“The budget is sort of a symbol of whether or not you can get anything done,” Snowe said. “And we’ve had our successes and failures, but it requires consensus and bipartisanship.”

Plus, not having a budget that sets spending caps makes it much more difficult to pass appropriations bills. It also could leave some key Democratic legislative priorities — such as some of their jobs initiatives — without budget protections.

“Having a budget paves the way into next year,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide. “There are a lot of things we need to get done that smooths the road for the next president.”

Still, even Durbin seemed to leave open the chance that Democrats could fall victim to their circumstances.

Asked if Congress could live without a budget resolution, Durbin responded: “We could, but we don’t want to. We think it’s important if we can do it, and we’re not going to give up until we’ve tried everything we can.”

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.