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Spratt Rallies His Team on Budget

House Budget Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.) is quietly and methodically laying the groundwork to build support across the Democratic Caucus for a 2008 budget resolution that he hasn’t even written yet.

Given the difficulties both parties have faced in recent years getting their Members to support a single, expansive blueprint that provides plenty of room for disagreement, Spratt said he already has engaged Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) in his plan to convince the diverse Caucus to help him pass a five-year balanced budget plan this spring.

“We’ve already started working the Caucus for support of a budget resolution, the concept of a budget resolution,” Spratt said in an interview Tuesday. “As I tell my Democratic colleagues, ‘If you can’t budget, you can’t govern.’”

Hoyer plans to sit in on meetings between Spratt and Democratic committee chairmen, which Spratt said would be his first priority. Spratt said he would be asking committee chairmen what they would like a budget resolution to facilitate as well as what kinds of revenue raisers — including possible tax increases — they might be able to draw up as part of a potential budget reconciliation package.

Meanwhile, Spratt will be meeting, as he usually does, with different Democratic Party factions such as the moderate-to-conservative Blue Dogs, the New Democrats and the Progressive Caucus to press them to support a budget resolution.

Those meetings will be key, he said, because he does not want to run his budget “up the flag pole” to see if it flies. “We’ll do a lot of flag drills before we bring it to the floor,” he said.

Spratt said his job is much harder this year because previous Democratic budgets primarily were used as documents to register the party’s opposition to the former Republican majority’s budget priorities and often they didn’t even get the votes of all Democrats — a situation Spratt said he is determined to avoid this year.

“We’re putting together a budget that’s got to work,” Spratt said. “This is not a statement or a symbol.”

He said Democratic leaders would be key to passing any budget this year — a fact that has not been lost on Pelosi or Hoyer.

“Certainly, there’s a realization that this budget is very different from budgets we put together in the past,” said one House Democratic leadership aide. “There’s a higher bar to reach. It’s going to become law.”

That’s why Spratt said he’s putting such a premium on his meetings with Democratic committee chairmen.

Tops on his list will be meeting with House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (N.Y.), considering Rangel likely will be charged with finding ways to save money under Medicare and Medicaid, as well as possibly drafting targeted tax increases.

Spratt said he would “like to do it without raising taxes,” but acknowledged that may be hard to do. Still, he noted, “Nobody in the Democratic Party is pushing me to come up with new taxes to pay for a balanced budget.”

He said he instead would be looking to reduce some Medicare payments to managed care providers as well as enacting some of the user fees proposed in the president’s recently released 2008 budget.

Spratt said attempts by the White House and Republicans in Congress to frame the budget debate as one that challenges Democrats to balance the budget in five years without raising taxes — as the president’s budget claims to do — is a red herring.

“It’s not a real challenge,” he said. “They haven’t done what they’re calling on others to do.”

Spratt said the White House’s refusal to include a permanent solution for the alternative minimum tax, which is increasingly ensnaring middle-income taxpayers rather than the wealthy ones it was designed to target, is just one example of how the president’s budget does not live up to its hype. If a permanent fix for the AMT had been included, the president could not have counted as revenues the money those middle-income taxpayers will owe.

“They’re booking those revenues and not acknowledging that it’s a tax increase on middle-class” taxpayers, said Spratt.

Still, Spratt acknowledged that Democrats, and himself in particular, are going to have a tough time balancing the budget with relatively limited funds.

Spratt said the first problem for him is that he will not be following the president’s budget, which assumes that revenues coming into the government will be higher than those projected by the Congressional Budget Office. He’ll be using the lower CBO estimates, instead.

“Anyone who uses the CBO baseline is going to be at a disadvantage from the start,” he said. In just the past year of the president’s five-year budget, the difference between the White House’s projected revenues and CBO’s is a whopping $155 billion.

But he said that no matter the challenges to drafting a balanced five-year budget, he wants to do what Republicans were unable to do last year — get an actual budget passed through both chambers.

“We want to draw a distinction between us and them,” he said.

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