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Prospects Bleak For Budget Deal

‘Last Chance’ Plea Unheeded

Senate Budget Chairman Don Nickles (R-Okla.) warned that this week’s planned budget vote would offer Senators their last chance this year to set spending goals, even though Republican and Democratic moderates indicated Wednesday that they would not give Nickles the votes he needs to pass a 2005 budget resolution conference report.

After striking a deal Tuesday night with House GOP leaders, Nickles said, “I think when people consider the alternative, which is no budget, this is far superior to having no budget. … You know I’m not one to give up, but I think we’ll have this [budget] or no budget at all.”

Nickles had gambled that the four GOP moderates and one centrist Democrat who are demanding strict spending restraints would cave under the pressure of a vote on the conference report.

But so far, that is not happening.

For the past eight weeks, House-Senate budget negotiations have focused on whether to adopt a Senate-approved amendment that institutes “pay-as-you-go” spending rules for five years. Such rules would require any new tax cuts and mandatory spending to be offset with cuts elsewhere.

Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) have withheld their support from any budget resolution that does not apply PAYGO to both spending and tax cuts for multiple years.

House GOP leaders, for their part, have balked at the notion that tax cuts need to be paid for with spending cuts.

However, Nickles and House Budget Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) decided to file a budget conference report Wednesday morning that would only apply PAYGO rules to the coming fiscal year and would set spending goals for one year rather than five. The budget deal also would exempt three popular expiring tax cuts from PAYGO and protect those cuts from filibuster in the Senate.

However, all five of the moderate holdouts had already gone on record last week saying such a plan would not be enough to garner their votes. Nickles needs only two of them to ensure passage of the budget resolution conference report.

“I’m not going to be able to support it,” said Collins, who had been considered one of the best hopes Nickles had for finding one of the votes he needs.

Chafee and McCain also reiterated their opposition to the one-year plan. Snowe has also indicated that she would vote against the budget deal. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) appeared highly skeptical of the plan.

“I still think we ought to hold out for a multiyear budget,” Nelson said.

Still, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) put a brave face on the prospects for a budget resolution, and one Senate GOP aide held out hope that the White House would lean on the holdouts to support the budget agreement.

“We’re still working … trying to get as many votes as possible,” Frist said.

But as of Wednesday afternoon, it was unclear where those votes might come from.

Other moderate Democrats, such as Arkansas Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, said they would not support the conference report.

“From what I hear about it, it doesn’t appeal to me,” said Pryor. Pryor then took a shot at Republicans refusal to include Democrats in the conference committee, asking, “So what happened? Republicans agreed to this among themselves?”

In the meantime, one Senate Democratic aide noted that Republicans would have a very difficult time getting any Democrat beyond Sen. Zell Miller (Ga.) — who has already indicated his support of a GOP budget deal — to support the package.

“Democrats have privately committed to the leadership that they’ll maintain fiscal discipline and oppose the … budget,” the aide said.

Given the difficulty of finding enough votes, Frist also indicated that he might wait until after the Memorial Day recess — which begins at the end of this week — to hold a budget vote.

“A final decision on how we deal with [the budget] over the next several days has not been decided,” said Frist.

But Nickles and Senate GOP aides downplayed the possibility that a vote could be delayed more than a week, saying their plan was still to try for a vote on the budget resolution either today or Friday.

The House was expected to vote on the conference report Wednesday night, after press time.

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