Senate Budget Panel Likely to Avoid Votes

Posted April 17, 2012 at 6:05pm

Score another point for Senate Democratic leaders: It appears the Senate Budget Committee likely won’t vote on a budget resolution after all.

Chairman Kent Conrad is set to reintroduce the Bowles-Simpson fiscal commission plan Wednesday. That’s the same framework that failed in 2010 to get enough votes in the president’s bipartisan deficit reduction commission and that was crushed last month in the House on a 38-382 vote.

But the North Dakota Democrat isn’t giving the proposal a chance to get shot down any time soon because there won’t be any amendments and there likely won’t be any votes. There will just be opening statements and another hearing to review the plan at an as-yet undetermined time.

Conrad indicated April 8 that he was inclined to hold a regular markup. Indeed, Budget ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said he was “surprised” and “disappointed” by the change of plans. But Senate Democratic leaders have made no secret of their discomfort at making their caucus take tough votes on a nonbinding resolution that is almost certain to hit a wall in the GOP-led House. And Conrad’s belief that Republicans would not put forth a good-faith effort in the process caused him to shift back to his original idea to consider Bowles-Simpson, he said today.

“As we went through it, I concluded just putting up another partisan budget plan probably is not going to contribute much and changed course,” Conrad told reporters.

“No, I think the timing there would be all wrong,” he said about whether there would be votes on the plan soon. “If one is interested in really getting a result, which is my interest, the time is not yet right. Nothing could be more clear. You couldn’t have a clearer message than the House vote.”

In every political sense, Conrad was boxed in.

He was stuck between his genuine desire and responsibility to mark up a budget and his need to defend this summer’s Budget Control Act, a law he helped shape and one leaders have touted as the reason a budget resolution is unnecessary. Though sources say he does not want to retire at the end of this year without having at least tried to pass a budget, his legacy is less a concern to the vast number of Democrats up for re-election this cycle.  

Republicans have criticized Democrats for not passing a budget resolution in more than 1,000 days and expressed disappointment that one would not be done this year, but moving forward would have allowed Republicans to force unlimited floor votes on politically tinged budget amendments.

Had the Budget Committee actually approved a plan, aides said, Senate Republicans were poised to vote in favor of opening debate on that framework, despite disagreeing on its content. They would take the political high ground, showing they were concerned enough with the country’s deficit problems to open debate on a budget they didn’t agree with.

Those are precisely the reasons why Senate Democratic leaders declined to craft a budget last year and why leaders continued to resist the idea when Conrad floated it earlier this month.

During August’s talks over the Budget Control Act, which raised the debt ceiling and set spending levels for the next fiscal year, Conrad told Sessions that he would mark up a budget resolution this year in order to secure more GOP votes on the pending agreement.

Today, Sessions said he believed Conrad reneged on that agreement, though he was quick to blame Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and rank-and-file Democrats for being afraid to take politically challenging votes.

“It was a failure to follow through on the pledge that he made, fundamentally, and I’m disappointed,” Sessions told reporters today. “I realize that it doesn’t have as much meaning since Reid had made clear he was not going to bring it up to the floor even if one was passed out of committee.”

“Sen. Conrad has spent many hours and years wrestling with the numbers,” Sessions said. “I think he wanted to lay down his vision. … I’m confident he intended until recent days or hours to go forward with a normal markup, and I think there was an uprising, probably, and Members did not want to vote. They did not want to have to vote on the tough issues facing America. They wanted to punt.”

Democrats, of course, pushed back on the Alabama Republican’s critique, arguing that it was emblematic of what the continued fight might look like had they pressed forward with a real budget markup.

“It’s fair to say you would understand he’d be disappointed, but the fact is, he’d also be playing politics with the situation,” said one Democratic aide who tracks budget issues.

So instead of a controversial and difficult budget process this year, Members of the panel instead will present a series of opening statements staking out their position with little promise of acting on it.

The Bowles-Simpson recommendations call for about $4 trillion of savings over 10 years through a combination of entitlement reforms, tax increases and tax code reforms.

Over the past two years, Democrats have resisted changes to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security while Republicans have bristled at the idea of raising taxes.

Conrad, in addition to heading the Budget Committee, was a member of both the fiscal commission and the bipartisan “gang of six,” which worked for more than a year to produce a comprehensive deficit-reduction plan with little result.