Democrats in Budget Dilemma

Van Hollen Hoping to Unify Caucus on Issue

Posted March 29, 2011 at 6:38pm

While most of Capitol Hill is focused on the partisan showdown over federal spending, House Democrats are embroiled in a separate battle: whether to produce an alternative to the GOP budget.

Democratic leaders have been holding closed-door meetings for weeks on how to proceed, but time is slipping away. Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is slated to unveil his budget blueprint next week, and GOP leaders are expected to bring the measure to the floor shortly thereafter.

Democratic leaders are particularly sensitive about putting forth a budget this year since Republicans hammered them for months in 2010 for failing to produce one. Factions within the Democratic Caucus, meanwhile, are moving forward with plans to produce their own budget, complicating the Democratic leadership’s position even more. 

Ryan’s Democratic counterpart on the Budget panel, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, has been holding talks for the past six weeks with his fellow ranking members and leaders from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, New Democrat Coalition, the Blue Dog Coalition and the Tri-Caucus about their budget priorities.

The Maryland lawmaker has been laying the foundation for Democrats to push back against the forthcoming Republican budget, arguing that the GOP proposal would do nothing to reduce deficits in the long term and would harm the economy in the short term. 

Van Hollen said Tuesday that it is important for Democrats to have a unified message against the Republicans, but so far, they have yet to coalesce around a plan of their own.

“When you are in the minority, there are really two ways that we try to be effective. One is to draw clear contrasts and get our message out on issues that are important to the American people because how the Republicans’ approach is perceived in the House will affect its chances in the Senate,” Van Hollen said.

Van Hollen said Democrats would make a decision soon about whether to introduce a budget. He added that while he isn’t opposed to Caucus groups putting out separate budgets, he does believe it is important for Democrats to speak with one voice against the Republicans on the issue.

“I don’t have any concerns with that so long as if we were to put together a Democratic alternative, I do want a good degree of unity around that,” Van Hollen said.

While some Democrats believe they need to produce a budget alternative to counter the Republicans, others feel President Barack Obama’s budget blueprint should be the party’s plan, Democratic aides said.

Aides said that if Democrats opt to produce a budget, they would use it to show they share a different set of priorities to the Republicans. Democrats would likely accuse Republicans of failing to include proposals that would raise revenue while also making a push to return to Clinton-era tax rates for the wealthiest Americans. Democrats would also advocate eliminating special-interest tax breaks.

This isn’t the first time Democrats have struggled over their budget strategy. Last year, the Democratic majority spent months trying to decide whether to bring a budget blueprint to the floor and ultimately decided against doing so. The situation was complicated by the fact that then-Budget Chairman John Spratt was facing a tough re-election battle. Republicans targeted the South Carolina Democrat for failing to bring forth a budget — and he ultimately lost his re-election bid.  

The Democratic leadership’s indecision notwithstanding, the Congressional Black Caucus plans to present a budget plan of its own.

Chairman Emanuel Cleaver said he hoped the budget the CBC puts out would become the Democratic Caucus proposal. The CBC historically has put forward its own budget.

The Missouri Democrat, who met with Vice President Joseph Biden on Tuesday to discuss the budget and other issues, said he has yet to meet with Democratic leadership on a spending blueprint.

“We’re going to put out our budget no matter what, even if the Democratic Caucus puts out a budget,” Cleaver said.

“We welcome the rest of the Democratic Caucus to join us with speaking with one voice behind our budget,” Cleaver said. “We would like for our budget to become the Caucus budget. We’d like for it to become the Republican budget.”

“There are Members, not a small group of Members, who are going to sign onto our budget,” Cleaver said.

Republicans are continuing to blast Democrats for failing to produce a budget last year. 

“After their historic budget failure last year, it would certainly be ironic if Washington Democrats chose to do one this year,” Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), said in a statement. “We certainly hope they will, and that they will join us in listening to the American people, who want us to cut out-of-control Washington spending and tackle the big issues like protecting programs like Medicare or Social Security.”