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Budget Battle Heads to Floor

As House Republicans work to build support for the fiscal 2005 budget, Democrats head into this week’s vote confident that their own Members will unanimously oppose the GOP bill.

Democratic leaders also believe their alternative spending blueprint gives them a rare chance to argue they are the more fiscally responsible party and will use the floor debate, currently scheduled for Thursday, to criticize the GOP for passing too many tax cuts for the wealthy at the expense of key domestic programs and the federal deficit. They hope the arguments will play out in their favor politically, believing they are “taking the fiscally responsible high road on this budget.”

“We see a unique situation happening on the House floor this year than in previous years,” explained one senior House Democratic staffer. “Not only will we have Democratic unity, but Republicans will be in the position of voting for a budget that doesn’t balance like the Democratic budget does.”

Last year, Rep. Ralph Hall (Texas) was the only Democrat to support the GOP budget proposal and he has since switched parties.

Led by House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Budget ranking member Rep. John Spratt (S.C.), Democrats have been meeting with Members for more than a month to plot their budget strategy and try to build opposition to the GOP plan.

The planning began with listening sessions with different Caucus factions. Two weeks ago, according to senior Democratic aides, Hoyer began whipping Members in earnest on the Republican bill and Democratic alternative.

Hoyer said Democrats will make the case that Republicans have been fiscally “reckless” and mismanaged the budget and argue Democrats are the party of deficit reduction and pay-as-you-go policies. He predicted “overwhelming opposition” by Democrats to the GOP budget

“We’ll be at near unanimity,” Hoyer said of the vote.

Democrats will present three budget proposals — one from the conservative Blue Dogs, a second by the more progressive Congressional Black Caucus and the third, and official Caucus alternative, from Spratt. The Blue Dogs will seek to hold the line on spending, while freezing tax cuts for Americans making $200,000 or more and reducing the federal deficit by one-half in two years. The CBC, meanwhile, will propose repealing the tax cuts for Americans making more than $200,000, a 10 percent debt reduction over time and increased spending in the areas of education, veterans and homeland security.

Spratt has yet to unveil his plan, the final aspects of which Democratic sources say are still being firmed up. But sources indicate his budget will be a 10-year plan that freezes the highest brackets of the Republican-backed tax cuts, calls for a balanced budget within the decade and greater investments than Republicans in major domestic programs.

House leaders are hoping that by allowing different Caucus segments to offer and vote first for their individual budget blueprints, they will then rally around the Spratt proposal.

Democratic leaders are selling the Spratt plan behind the scenes as “not perfect,” but far better than the GOP offering. Spratt and the leaders sought to appeal to the liberal wing of the Caucus by including higher spending on domestic items, and to the conservatives by setting a course to put the budget in the black.

“We met with people for weeks to make sure that while it doesn’t make everybody thrilled, it is better than the Republican budget,” said one well-placed Democratic aide.

Rep. Charlie Stenholm (Texas), a leader of the Blue Dog Coalition, said although he prefers his group’s budget, Spratt’s also is far more fiscally sound than the Republicans’ and will garner significant support. Stenholm added that he wouldn’t be surprised if some Republicans even supported his group’s plan — which would balance the budget in eight years and more rapidly cut the deficit.

“I can’t imagine a Democrat voting for the Republican budget if it is how it came out of committee,” Stenholm predicted. “With all due respect, it is not fiscally responsible.”

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), who helped craft the CBC alternative, said there will be substantial opposition to the Republican plan “because of the priorities.”

“Republicans favor tax cuts for those making over $200,000 a year over veterans’ health care, over education, over homeland security.”

Democrats say they will try to paint themselves as more fiscally responsible by ramping up a push for Republicans to take up budget enforcement legislation calling for the government to “pay as you go” on all future taxes cuts and spending. The Senate passed a similar amendment earlier this month and House Republicans have been reluctant to go along with that formula.

Stuart Roy, spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), disputed any suggestion that the Democratic strategy would work or that their budget would be more fiscally responsible than the GOP plan.

“If you define fiscal responsibility by job-killing tax hikes, then they win,” Roy said.

DeLay and his fellow Republicans are working to consolidate support for their budget plan knowing that they are unlikely to draw any Democratic votes.

“I think we always operate on the assumption that the other side will not be there to vote with us,” said Chief Deputy Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

With that in mind, House Budget Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) and Republican leaders have worked for more than a month to bring various factions within the Republican Conference on board as soon as possible.

“We had a different strategy this year,” said Budget Committee spokesman Sean Spicer. “The Whip team was very involved early. We really tried to get a lot of the issues with the different groups [in the Conference] figured out prior to markup.”

The biggest stumbling blocks to date have involved defense spending, veterans spending and a package of budget process reforms being pushed by both moderates and conservatives.

The defense and veterans issues were mostly resolved before last week’s committee markup of the spending blueprint. While both the timing and substance of the budget reform package are still potentially divisive, Republican Members and aides expressed cautious optimism that the overall budget is on path to passage.

“There does not seem to be much disagreement about the overall number, which is not where we were a month ago,” Roy said.

House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Cantor will begin putting together a hard vote count today.

Nussle will brief the Whip team at tonight’s regularly scheduled 5:30 meeting and will then huddle with his fellow chairmen at 6 p.m. The leadership will conduct a Whip check at tonight’s floor votes.

While the Whip team won’t know how many undecided lawmakers there are until after tonight’s count, a handful of conservative and moderate Members have already made clear that they may withhold their support.

Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), co-chairman of the centrist Tuesday Group, said he hadn’t made a definite decision yet on how he would vote but was “probably leaning to no.”

“I think Jim Nussle did a really good job this year,” Castle said. “It’s a budget that’s not far off the mark but does miss in certain areas important to me.”

Castle said he did not expect moderates to move as a cohesive group to support or oppose the budget. Rep. Doug Ose (R-Calif.) has been tasked with canvassing their fellow centrists to gauge their current positions.

On the conservative side, some spending hawks have complained that they have been unable to get a firm commitment from the Republican leadership on when budget reform legislation will come to the floor.

Even so, some of the lawmakers who have been most vocal on the issue do not appear to have made it a deal-breaker.

“I haven’t made up my mind yet, said Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Fla.), a leading conservative advocate of process reform. “I think that the budget makes a solid step forward on issues I’m concerned about. … I’m leaning in favor of voting for it.”

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