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Murray Plans to Lead Democrats Into Budget Fray

For three years, Senate Democrats feared that presenting a budget would cloud their message against Republicans. But this year, they’re seeking to leverage a budget framework into a stronger hand at the table with the House GOP and Obama administration.

Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray of Washington is set to unveil and mark up a budget next week, in the middle of a fight over a continuing resolution to keep the government open. Murray might have to battle for time and attention for her larger, 10-year document against a more pressing shutdown fight. But as a member of leadership, she is in a better position than her predecessor, former Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., to thread that needle and use her new platform to shape the smaller debate, too.

“We’re all jammed here in a few weeks … and I think the story becomes really conflated at that point,” Murray told CQ Roll Call, referring to averting a government shutdown, dealing with the sequester cuts and unveiling a budget.

Murray resisted the idea that producing a budget would not be as effective as doubling-down on more targeted talking points Democrats have used in the past, such as exceptions for corporate jets and oil companies. In the summer of 2011, top Democratic leaders including Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York pressured Conrad to give up his pursuit of a budget framework to allow caucus leadership to better focus on specific talking points such as tax breaks for the rich or protecting entitlements.

Now, after the 2012 elections, Democratic leaders see the budget as a vehicle to make these same points. They believe raising taxes on the wealthy, through tax code changes, polls well enough to be less threatening than it might have been before the elections.

“My 10-year budget will reflect the values of our Democratic caucus and I will be outlining those very clearly. … Not just the long-term debt and deficit issue, but also the deficit we have in education and in infrastructure and doing it in a balanced way,” Murray said. “And I think that’s not only a great message for our caucus, but it’s what the country really wants us to do.”

Democratic leadership aides said the Senate plans to debate the budget the week before the Easter district work period, setting up March 21 for the “vote-a-rama” on the litany of amendments allowed for under budget debate rules. Though these same aides insisted that the Senate could dispense with the CR or an omnibus bill and move on to the budget by then, it’s unclear their work will wrap so neatly. If an agreement is not imminent to avoid a government shutdown, Murray’s budget could get drowned out by the now typical back-and-forth between leaders on intransigence, brinkmanship and the possibility of economic catastrophe.

That this is a possibility makes the cornerstone of Murray’s approach all the more important. In a memo to fellow Senate Democrats obtained by CQ Roll Call, Murray outlined how she plans to use her document as a foil to the budget set to be unveiled this month by House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis.

“We don’t yet know the details of House Republicans’ updated budget plan, but assuming they keep their promises, we have a good idea about what to expect. Because they have boxed off so much of the federal budget, House Republicans will have to resort to gimmicks or make deep, extreme cuts to programs that impact families, seniors and our long-term economic strength,” the memo said. “We won’t be able to impact the budget House Republicans are preparing. But as we work on our own, and hope to find a path to a bipartisan budget agreement, the House Republicans’ extreme approach makes the need for a responsible alternative that puts middle class families first is all the more clear.”

But while Murray and Democratic leaders are pushing a unified front in preparing to introduce their budget and tackling the Ryan plan head on, not everyone in the caucus is on board. In particular, vulnerable senators up for re-election in 2014 aren’t necessarily looking forward to having to vote on a Democratic plan that carries tax increases — one reason that doing a budget has been politically difficult for Democrats over the past three years.

Murray’s focus on the Ryan budget and countering it with a budget document of her own is in large part a testament to the success of the GOP talking point that Democrats have been shirking their responsibilities by not producing a budget of their own. Last week, the GOP hammered Democrats, marking the “1,400th day since Senate Democrats passed a budget.”

In Ryan’s first two budgets, Democrats found relative success attacking the framework as extreme and devastating to entitlement programs but found themselves vulnerable to the charge that Republicans were at least trying. Especially in the absence to date of a budget from the White House, which was delayed by concurrent fights over the fiscal cliff and the sequester, the Senate Democrats’ plan will be the only game in town.

“Whereas two or three years ago, people might have been more skittish about something that included revenues, now members are feeling more sure-footed,” one Democratic leadership aide said about the difference in caucus mood since November’s elections. “I don’t think we would be adequately able to frame the Ryan budget — I don’t think we’ll be able to take advantage of the Ryan budget — unless we have a contrast document.”

The aide, unaffiliated with the Budget Committee, said it was no longer enough for Democrats to “sit back and fire spitballs” at the House Republicans and said Democrats would be able to pass whatever framework comes out of Murray’s committee with “a majority of the body.”

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