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Sessions: No Budget Wonk

With budget talks breaking out all over Capitol Hill, Senate Budget ranking member Jeff Sessions has been on the outside looking in.

The Alabama Republican seems to still be feeling out his new role, more the loyal foot soldier for the GOP and talking points attack dog than the party’s idea man or deal-cutter.

Sessions said it’s fine with him that he’s not part of the bipartisan “gang of six” or the debt talks with Vice President Joseph Biden. He’s not writing a budget blueprint of his own. And he’s not likely to be in the room when the final deal is struck among the top leadership.

Sessions has generally been supportive of the gang of six’s work and hopes the Biden group finds common ground. 

“I don’t mind [Republican Arizona Sen.] Jon Kyl meeting with the vice president or anything that can help get us on the right path,” he said. And if the gang of six “can produce something that’s good for America, I’ll be happy,” Sessions said. 

Rather than generating a bunch of proposals on his own, Sessions has focused almost exclusively on attacking President Barack Obama for failing to produce a sustainable budget and on Senate Democrats for failing to produce a budget at all for the past two years.

Sessions has also been a cheerleader for House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget blueprint, noting humbly that the Wisconsin Republican has far more budget experience than he does.

“I have not been working on it that long, and I don’t think a plan I would put together would be as good as the one he put together,” Sessions said. 

Sessions acknowledged that he’s not instantly going to fill the outsized role of his predecessor, former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.). “When you had Judd there, we all depended on him to do so much of the work, and we didn’t contribute enough, quite frankly,” he said.

Views of Sessions vary in the Republican Conference. None expected him to completely replace Gregg, who carried a lot of weight with leadership and respect on both sides of the aisle.

“He’s not really a legislator,” one Republican aide said. “That’s the thing.”

Others are more charitable.

Senate Finance ranking member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said Sessions has done a good job representing the GOP position and pointing out flaws in the Democrats’ approach on the budget but that he can’t fill Gregg’s role overnight.

“Judd left very big shoes to fill. … This is [Sessions’] maiden voyage, and it does take time.”

Hatch said Sessions is also limited by what he can do in the minority and by the partisan atmosphere on Capitol Hill. “It’s an especially tough time,” he said.

Other Senators and aides praised Sessions as a messaging workhorse.

“Sen. Sessions consistently speaks at the weekly policy lunch on the details of the budget debate, and he’s been a strong voice in making the GOP position clear to the American people through floor debate and in a range of national media,” a senior GOP aide said.

Other Republicans have been raising their profiles as the budget battles have gone on, including Sen. Mike Crapo (Idaho), a member of the gang of six who is close to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and sits on both the Budget and Finance committees; freshman Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), the former budget director for President George W. Bush; and Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), who is pushing a spending cap plan that Sessions had sponsored in the past with Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).

Sessions’ relationships across the aisle aren’t at Gregg’s level either. Democratic aides generally dismiss him.  

And while Sessions said he’s enjoyed working with Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), the chairman didn’t return the compliment.

Conrad on Wednesday praised his buddy Gregg, saying that they had built up trust and respect over many years. But he icily refused to comment about his relationship with Sessions.

He was clearly irritated earlier in the week when asked about Sessions attacking him for not agreeing to provide 72 hours to examine his budget before a markup — something no Budget chairman has ever done.

Sessions said the escalation of his attacks has been intentional.

“Republicans have not been as effective as we should be on emphasizing the dangers of the debt,” Sessions said. “I felt that we’re in a crisis [and] the Democrats have gotten away without a budget for two years while the country is in the worst financial condition ever. … Maybe if we keep the pressure up, maybe something will break in a good way.”

Sessions noted he’s pointed out how Democrats have missed deadline after deadline this year to pass a budget. “They’ve either got to produce a budget that includes substantial reductions in spending and big tax increases or do nothing. Either way, they’re not comfortable.”

Sessions said he intends to keep up the charge.

“We’ve got to challenge them. The American people need to know: Paul Ryan has produced a good budget, where is yours?”