Road Map: It’s Time To Decide on Budget

Democrats Fear Tough Vote for Rank and File

Posted April 26, 2010 at 6:42pm

It’s getting to be crunch time for Democratic leaders to decide whether to pass a budget or simply punt on it to avoid forcing their Members to take what could be one of the toughest votes of the year.

The Senate Budget Committee approved Chairman Kent Conrad’s (D-N.D.) austere budget blueprint last week on a 12-10 vote — losing deficit hawk Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) — and a Democratic aide said that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) wants to bring the measure to the floor before the Memorial Day recess.

But House Democratic leaders — facing a skittish rank and file over their election-year prospects and internal disputes over spending — have yet to commit to moving a budget.

And there’s no guarantee the two chambers will be able to work out a joint budget resolution down the road given the perilous political environment for Democrats.

Liberals have been wary of President Barack Obama’s proposal for a domestic spending freeze when many of them believe the economy still needs another large shot in the arm to bring the unemployment rate down. And fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats have recently proposed their own fiscal austerity plan that would slash spending deeper.

“There’s always a tension,” said one House Democratic leadership aide, who said meetings are continuing this week as leadership tries to settle on a strategy.

“We’re continuing to try” to do a budget, the aide said. “It is going to be very difficult, but I think all of the leadership is trying to find the sweet spot.”

Conrad last week acknowledged the realities of getting a budget passed this year. He said Reid had given him “the green light” to press ahead, but a lot depends on the House. Asked about the drive among Democrats to pass a blueprint this year, Conrad said: “Well, there’s never a huge appetite to eat spinach.”

And Democrats know that time is starting to run out.

Congress has already blown past its April 15 deadline for passing the fiscal 2011 blueprint, and getting it done won’t get any easier if they can’t pass it by Memorial Day. Democrats know that the closer they get to Election Day, the more difficult the political environment becomes, and at some point they need to shift to the appropriations bills and the rest of their agenda.

“I don’t think we want to be dealing with the budget in June,” the House aide said. “We need to just make a decision.”

Republicans, meanwhile, are prepared to blast Democrats no matter what they do. If Democrats move forward, Republicans will attack them for voting for a budget that envisions record deficits — even if they shrink over time — and if they don’t, the GOP is prepared to call out Democrats as do-nothing hypocrites who are shirking their responsibilities. The Democratic playbook used by then-Minority Leaders Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Reid in 2006 ripped Congressional Republicans for failing to get a budget or their appropriations bills done as part of the “do-nothing Congress” meme.

Democratic leaders are aware of the risks of not doing a budget, and they want to be able to make the case to voters that they are making the tough decisions.

“It would show we have a plan and can govern, how we are putting us on a path to reducing the deficit, cutting it in half, and still have tax cuts for the middle class,” the aide said.

Democrats also hope to provide a contrast to a House Republican blueprint that they are convinced will prove deeply unpopular.

“One of the biggest advantages is you would force Republicans to put on the table what they would do,” the aide said. “They have no plan for governing, and I think the budget would expose that.”

And without much else on the House agenda, they simply don’t have any good excuses not to do a budget beyond cowardice.

Getting a budget done is also a requirement for using filibuster-busting reconciliation rules, which proved critical to passing a health care reform and student loan overhauls earlier this year. Conrad included reconciliation rules that would allow the Finance Committee to craft a jobs package later this year, provided that it cut a net $2 billion from the deficit. But Conrad and other Democrats on the committee backed language offered by ranking member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) requiring that no more than 20 percent of the savings in such a bill go toward new spending. That appears to eliminate the prospect of pushing through any major spending legislation such as a major climate change bill, transportation bill or local aid package, making it less of a lure for liberals.

Conrad’s blueprint also cuts spending by $4 billion more than Obama next year while fully funding Defense spending. Conrad had talked of going further and crafting a bigger deficit-cutting package through reconciliation but punted on dealing on the long-term entitlement issues to the president’s bipartisan commission, which begins meeting today.

Feingold, who is up for re-election, ripped the plan, saying Conrad’s budget exempts $1 trillion in tax cuts and entitlement spending from Senate pay-as-you-go rules, calling the move “fiscally irresponsible” and “a big step backwards.”