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Budget battle in Congress: It’s Democrat vs. Democrat


WASHINGTON, D.C. — As lawmakers duke it out this week over the 2010 budget, a key difference between the House and Senate versions could have a major impact on future heath care, energy and education legislation — not to mention larger implications for Congressional Democrats as a whole.

The matter — an arcane legislative procedure called reconciliation — would allow the Senate to pass certain legislation with a simple majority instead of the standard 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster.

At the urging of the Obama administration, the House Democrats wrote reconciliation measures into their version that passed the House Budget Committee last week. Meanwhile, some key Senate Democrats, including the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, have vocally opposed the approach.

“This is Democrat on Democrat action,” said Larry Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. “The Democrats are having a very difficult time constructing a stable governing coalition and the stumbling block is a split between the liberal and moderate wings.”

With only 58 members in the Senate Democratic Caucus, a handful of moderates on both sides of the aisle have enjoyed practical veto authority on legislation this session. Reconciliation would essentially provide an end run around this powerful moderate coalition on complex and controversial bills that the Obama administration has prioritized.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., the Senate Budget Committee chairman, and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who chairs the committee that would oversee much of the health care legislation, both oppose the move. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., told reporters last week that he would not vote for the budget if the reconciliation measures were ultimately included.

<strong>Betty McCollum</strong>
Betty McCollum

‘Time for action’
At the same time, the Democrats on the House Budget Committee, including Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., remained unified on the reconciliation strategy when they unanimously passed their budget last Wednesday.

“It is time for action, reform and reinvestment, not obstructionism,” McCollum said in comments before the committee. 

From the administration’s perspective, one need only look to the Clinton-era health-care reform failure to understand the concern. At the time, President Bill Clinton enjoyed a Democratic majority in Congress, but still failed to move health-care reform. The debacle later helped Republicans claim the majority for the first time in 40 years.

“What is going on now is that Rahm [Emanuel] and others in the Obama White House, who have lived through this, don’t want to go down that road again,” said Jacobs.

Clinton also tried to include reconciliation in the budget to insure swift passage of health-care reform. But, according to an account by PBS, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V., blocked the reconciliation strategy, calling it a “prostitution of the process.”      

But, it appears that President Obama has learned a little something from Clinton’s missteps. Last week, he traveled to the Capitol to talk about the budget with Senate Democrats and last night he met with House Democrats in an apparent attempt to keep the diverse group, with a sizable  number of fiscally conservative Blue Dog and New Democrats, unified as they head into a week of debate.

<strong>Collin Peterson</strong>
Collin Peterson

“I’m going to support the budget,” Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said last night. “These deficits are a little hard to swallow, but I mean we have to face reality of what the situation is with all the spending that has been going on here with the bailout and stimulus.”

On the matter of reconciliation, however, the Blue Dog Democrat deferred to his party’s leadership.

“That is above my pay grade,” Peterson said. “If it is going to cause a huge amount of partisanship, that’s not a good deal… [But] that is going to be a decision made at the leadership level.”

Blue Dog support
Fellow Blue Dog, Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., also expressed support for the House version of the budget, which includes “pay go” rules, a reserve fund that requires health-care reform be deficit neutral, about $7 billion less in spending (compared to Obama’s budget outline), and a removal of $250 billion that Obama’s budget had set aside for additional bailouts.

“The Blue Dogs have fought over the years to ensure that we make the tough choices on entitlement spending and revenue so that if we want to increase Medicare spending or extend the current middle-class tax cuts, we need to find a way to pay for it,” said Herseth Sandlin. “This Budget Resolution commits not only the House to these deficit-neutral policies, but calls on the Senate and the president.”

Both the House and Senate versions weigh in around $3 trillion and, as budgets, would establish guidelines for lawmakers as they move forward on spending bills and drafting legislation.

The Senate measure would cut Obama’s proposed $1.096 trillion in non-emergency discretionary spending by $15 billion, while the House would trim it by $7 billion.

Instead of making Obama’s $400 tax credit for most workers permanent, both the Senate and the House assume that it will expire in 2010.

On the deficit, the House plan foresees $1.2 trillion for 2010, but would cut that to around $600 billion after five years. In the Senate version, those numbers are $1.2 trillion in 2010 and about $500 billion in 2014. Obama’s budget would leave a deficit of about $750 billion in five years, with levels exceeding 5 percent of the economy by the end of the next decade.

Each version also plans for a substantial increase in non-defense domestic programs. The administration slated $50 billion, the Senate $35 billion, and the House $42 billion. Although the Senate and House versions are smaller, the differences are relatively modest when put in the context of spending more than $500 billion on all of the programs involved.

The Senate and House versions follow Obama’s lead on the defense budget and on extending the Bush-era tax cuts that were enacted in 2001 and 2003 with the exception of upper-income wage earners.

In addition, lawmakers in both houses removed a controversial measure included in Obama’s budget, which would have curtailed direct subsidies to farmers grossing more than $250,000.

Both have also deleted much of the details in Obama’s budget, allowing for more wiggle room in the committees of jurisdiction when they draft legislation.

While the budget is a nonbinding document that does not require the president’s signature and does not have the force of law, it is an important roadmap for moving forward on legislation.

“You don’t want anarchy,” said Jacobs. “The idea is to create an honesty about how much this is going to cost and then discipline.”

GOP opposition
Republicans in the House and Senate, however, remain opposed to all the budget versions.

<strong>Erik Paulsen</strong>
Erik Paulsen

Minnesota Republican Reps. John Kline and Erik Paulsen both said that the House budget spends, taxes and borrows too much.

“I’m concerned this budget plan will not only lead to record spending, deficit and debt, but will also harm job growth…,” said Paulsen in a statement. “We need a better budget — one that focuses on growing jobs, curbing spending and getting control of our national debt.”

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., called the budget numbers “truly staggering.”

“Right now we are a long ways from a budget proposal that is worthy of taxpayer trust and is a responsible use of their tax dollar,” Thune said in a statement.

But despite the Republican outcries and squabbling among moderate Democrats, the House and Senate are still expected to pass their versions of the budget by the end of this week. After a two-week spring recess, they will take the matter up in conference committee. It will then be decided whether to include the controversial reconciliation measures or not.

On that matter, having Al Franken in the Senate would make a difference for the Democrats, according to Jacobs.

Not only would he provide them with a tantalizing 59 votes moving forward on health-care and cap-and-trade issues, but he would also add to the liberal-leaning ranks, Jacobs said.

He might even make the difference between keeping the controversial and ultimately divisive reconciliation measures or not.

“Minnesota is kind of the ace in the hole,” said Jacobs. “If Democrats are able to get Franken seated, it would actually have a big impact.”

But that is a big “if.” In the first place, the three-judge panel has not issued a ruling on former Republican Sen. Norm Coleman’s appeal of the recount that held Franken to be the winner.

And Politico reported on Monday that Senate Republicans would move to block Franken being seated before Coleman can pursue his case through the federal courts.

Cynthia Dizikes covers Minnesota’s congressional delegation and reports on issues and developments in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at cdizikes[at]minnpost[dot]com.