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Senate Democrats Wary of Budget Fights

Senate Democrats, wary of losing control of the chamber and weary from a year of battle, appear apprehensive about taking another round of show votes on Republican budgets doomed to fail.

It’s a far cry from last year when both Democrats and Republicans were chomping at the bit to vote on the budget resolution crafted by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and approved by the GOP-controlled lower chamber. But this year, with 24 of the 33 seats in cycle currently held by Senators who caucus with Democrats, the party seems annoyed by the prospects of taking political votes on any terms but their own.

Late last month, Democrats futilely attempted to secure a ruling from the Senate parliamentarian to keep budgets from receiving votes on the floor by asking whether they could use last summer’s Budget Control Act to block further GOP action. The bungled strategic move to get the ruling, which many Democratic aides said they never thought would go in their favor, reveals more about the party’s general aversion to making vulnerable, in-cycle Members take tough political votes than anything else.

Few, if any, Democrats publicly support the Ryan budget, but not passing their own budget has left them open to sustained Republican attacks over their unwillingness to set spending priorities for the next year. The sweeping Budget Control Act set discretionary spending levels for upcoming fiscal years more definitively than any nonbinding resolution could; still, budgets also deal with mandatory spending and set priorities for committee action, in some cases.

“If they want to force votes on budget resolutions, we’ll be happy to have votes on theirs,” one Democratic leadership aide said.

But another senior Democratic aide said the parliamentarian’s ruling undercut the party’s message that last year’s Budget Control Act is the budget. The senior aide said the party simply should have allowed the GOP to bring up its resolutions and vote them down as they did last year.

“It undercuts the argument we’ve been making for seven months,” the aide said, adding that “the whole notion that we were somehow going to avoid this process was a little naive.”

Under Senate rules, any Senator can force such a vote after April 1, and only 51 votes are needed to force a budget to the floor. Any budget resolution this year would likely be a pointless exercise given the intractable differences with House Republicans, but a full debate on a budget resolution — any budget resolution — would give the GOP a double-barreled political bonanza. They’d be able to point to the record deficits under President Barack Obama and force a “vote-a-rama.” During Senate budget debates, amendment votes are not limited. A budget vote-a-rama could expose Democratic divides on dozens of politically volatile issues, ranging from the Keystone XL pipeline to immigration to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The Senate Democratic strategy for months now has been focused in large part on specific votes good for their message but destined to fail. For example, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid teed up a procedural vote on the “Buffett Rule” for tax week and the chamber recently staged a replay of last year’s effort to roll back oil company subsidies. Indeed, Democrats believe taxing millionaires and eliminating oil and gas company tax breaks are winning issues for this election year.

But exposing the party’s many vulnerable incumbents to uncontrolled, unlimited amendments crafted by the GOP strikes Democratic leadership as unwise.

There would be an effort by Republicans to hold “gotcha votes on Viagra for sex offenders” and there would be no practical point to doing it, said a senior Democratic leadership aide. The aide was referring to a Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) amendment raised in the vote-a-rama on the 2010 health care law; the Coburn proposal would have prevented the government from subsidizing erectile dysfunction drugs for sex offenders. “There is no point in going through all those gotcha votes,” the aide said.

The aide also minimized the parliamentarian’s ruling on taking up budget resolutions: “There wasn’t a lot riding on it one way or another,” the aide said, pinning the effort on Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.).

Until recently, Conrad had designs on marking up a budget in his committee even though Reid had made clear publicly he has no intention of a budget ever seeing the light of day on the floor.

On Sunday, Conrad told “Fox News Sunday” that he has plans next week to mark up a “longer-term” plan, but not necessarily a budget for the upcoming fiscal year. The retiring Democrat was a member of both the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction panel and the bipartisan Senate “gang of six.” It was unclear if Conrad planned to try to mark up a version of either of those proposals.

“The fact is, what we don’t have is a longer-term plan. That’s what I’m going to mark up the first week I’m back in session,” Conrad said, noting that it would be unlikely such a plan could get a full Senate vote even if approved by his panel.

“That becomes a matter of time. I think Sen. Reid has made the judgment, perhaps quite correctly, that there is very little chance that we’re going to get the two sides together before the election,” Conrad said.

A regular Conrad budget markup would cause Democrats a potentially embarrassing vote on the floor if Republicans pushed to bring it up. Democrats who would have voted for Conrad’s budget in committee would have to switch their votes to “no” to avoid dealing with their own budget and the potential for votes on those pesky amendments.

Another politically tricky issue is voting down Obama’s budget in an election year. Last year, no Democrats voted for the president’s budget, and this year likely would produce a similar outcome. That not a single Democratic Senator voted for the administration’s offering last year has become a favorite talking point of the GOP.

But the demagoguing cuts both ways. Even though Democrats showed initial resistance to holding budget votes at all, they still say they will be able to use them to attack Ryan’s budget.

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