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Road Map: Conference Will Host the Real Budget Drama

To reconcile or not to reconcile, that is the question.

Just because fast-track budget rules are not in the Senate’s $3.5 trillion spending blueprint, that doesn’t mean the fiscal 2010 budget battle in both chambers this week won’t be dominated by a will-they-or-won’t-they debate over including reconciliation instructions to protect health care and education reforms from a filibuster.

[IMGCAP(1)]And it appears part of the problem is the Senate doth protest too much.

Take, for example, Budget Chairman Kent Conrad’s (D-N.D.) less-than-inspiring promise on Monday to oppose House Democratic leaders’ push to use reconciliation to protect President Barack Obama’s top legislative priorities once the budget gets to a House-Senate conference committee.

“I don’t control the outcome of the conference. You know? I’m a participant, but I don’t control the outcome,— Conrad said. “I’ve stated my strong preference is not to have reconciliation. I will argue that position strongly in conference, but I can’t control the outcome.—

Of course, that conference won’t begin until after both chambers have passed their respective versions — the House on Wednesday or Thursday, the Senate on Thursday or Friday.

Though Senate Democratic centrists have repeatedly expressed indignation at the thought of abandoning “regular order— and bipartisanship in favor of ramming Democratic plans through Congress, it’s difficult to find many willing to state unequivocally that they would oppose any House-Senate conference report with reconciliation in it.

“I want the [bipartisan] process to work,— Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said last week. “But if there’s obstructionism involved, you have to take actions to avoid that.—

Others were cagier, but no more willing to draw a line in the sand over setting up a process in which only 51 votes — rather than 60 — would be needed to pass major health care or education reforms. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), who co-chairs a newly formed centrist alliance called the Moderate Dems Working Group, declined to say how she would vote if the budget came back with provisions protecting those two priorities.

“It’s really tough,— she said. “This is major, substantive legislation. That’s not what reconciliation was designed for.—

Only Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) has said adding such language would be a “dealbreaker— for him.

Much speculation has centered on the moderate alliance’s meeting today, and whether the 15 Senators in the group will take a unified position on reconciliation before the conference committee meets. Lincoln said she doubted that the bloc would emerge from the meeting with a single policy position. The alliance is expected to hear from Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag today.

Still, Senate leaders can afford to lose a handful of Democrats on the final budget blueprint, and that may be inevitable if it includes reconciliation instructions.

However, it appears that the House sucked out much of the drama over the reconciliation debate by deciding not to protect any climate change legislation in the budget from a filibuster. Eight Democratic Senators, just one shy of the nine needed to completely kill the Democrats’ budget on the Senate floor, signed a letter this month warning party leaders to avoid using the fast-track budget rules for the cap-and-trade energy reforms in the bill.

Republicans, however, argue that the House’s budget instructions are written so vaguely that they might allow Democrats to slip controversial energy provisions into the reconciliation bill that would come up later this year. And they’ve dubbed Obama’s pollution reduction plan a secret “sales tax— on American consumers, because they say it would force utilities to raise rates.

But Democratic leaders have shot that down as a conspiracy theory, particularly since it would likely cause a wholesale revolt among their own centrists.

Plus, the massive size and scope of a bill creating new health care, energy and education programs would likely doom it on the floor, Conrad said. “That’s not a realistic prospect,— he said.

Still, protecting Obama’s priorities has gained favor among Senate Democratic leaders if for no other reason than as an insurance policy to make sure Republicans can’t block major health care reform.

“We’re doing health care this year, and Republicans can either be willing partners or they could be dragged along,— one senior Senate Democratic aide said.

But Senate Budget ranking member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said he hopes to head Democrats off at the pass on the reconciliation issue this week by offering an amendment that would essentially create a 60-vote point of order against any budget conference report that includes fast-track rules. With only 58 Democrats and no Republicans likely to vote with Democrats to overcome the point of order, the amendment, if adopted, would effectively kill any hope of using reconciliation.

Gregg said Monday that he was still working out the language of his amendment with the Senate Parliamentarian, but that he didn’t expect even reconciliation-hating Democrats to vote with him to get the 51 votes needed to prevail.

“There’s a lock-step mentality on the other side of the aisle,— he said.

Gregg said he was pessimistic as well about Democratic support for many of the other Republican amendments that are expected, including a freeze on non-defense-related spending.

Gregg said GOP amendments would zero in on the Democratic budget’s focus on “too much spending, too much taxing and too much borrowing.—

Senate Democrats plan on pushing back against Republican attacks by highlighting the legacy they say the George W. Bush administration left to Obama.

“The fact of the matter is we inherited a Republican deficit,— the senior Senate Democratic aide said. “It’s not just a deficit in numbers. For eight years, Republicans ignored key priorities in our country, including health care, education and energy. So now we’re going to have to make significant investments in those sectors if we’re ever to truly recover.—

Senate Democratic aides said they don’t expect much friendly fire from Democratic amendments on the budget, but that they have several proposals ready to go in case any Republican amendments resonate with the more conservative element of their party.

Meanwhile, the House debate should go relatively smoothly, because the Rules Committee can limit the amendments offered to their budget and typically only allows complete substitutes.

The biggest question facing House Democratic leaders is how many moderate Democrats might vote against the budget resolution or support a GOP alternative. If they have a lot of defections, it could be a sign of discontent with the pursuit of health care reform and concern about tax increases, among other things.

However, fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats won several concessions from leadership aimed at securing their votes, including a commitment to move a separate bill codifying pay-as-you-go budget rules. No Republican is likely to vote for the budget.

House Republicans promise they will finally propose a budget alternative, with specifics and numbers, after they were pilloried last week for putting out a budget blueprint without a single dollar figure to back it up.

Besides fighting over whether to insert fast-track budget rules, the House-Senate conference will also be a battleground over how much discretionary spending to allocate. The House cut $7 billion from Obama’s proposed spending plan, while the Senate cut $15 billion.

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.

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