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First Budget in Four Years for Senate Democrats

Debate will be chamber’s first marathon markup in 4 years

Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee say they hope to keep the focus during this week’s expected marathon markup on setting a sound course for the country’s fiscal future.

Though such issues have dominated the national political conversation since 2008, this week marks the first time in four years that members will actually debate a budget resolution, with proceedings expected to kick off Wednesday.

“Senate Budget Chair Patty Murray, and her colleagues, will introduce the long-delayed Democrat plan on Wednesday,” Senate Budget ranking member Jeff Sessions of Alabama said Saturday in the GOP weekly address, previewing the Republican rebuttal to the proposal to be unveiled by the Democratic senator from Washington.

“I fear it will crush American workers and our economy with trillions in new taxes, spending and debt,” Sessions said. “I fear Chairman Murray will follow the president’s lead: raising taxes to enrich the bureaucracy at the expense of the people.”

And despite the promise to keep the discourse focused on the two party’s divergent plans for fiscal health, that doesn’t mean there won’t be a few gotcha amendments from both sides.

“I think it’s important that we offer amendments that really define the course that we think the country ought to go, and have some fundamental directional changes to put America on a sound path financially, that is what I am focused on,” Sessions told CQ Roll Call.

However, the Alabama Republican, as well as Republican and Democratic aides, would not rule out the possibility that both sides will offer amendments — both in committee and on the floor — designed to score political points.

“If they choose to go down that road, then there will be equal pain on both sides,” a senior Senate Democratic aide said.

“We are moving forward with a serious process with a budget that reflects balanced priorities,” the aide continued. “If the GOP use [the process] for political tricks then it shows they don’t have any ideas except to take political pot shots.”

A Senate Republican aide said the process would likely run the typical course and include a free-for-all of amendments offered on the floor.

“The majority of the debate will be on the direction each side wants the take the country. Obviously Democrats want to raise taxes and increase spending,” the GOP aide said. Probably when the debate “hits the floor there will be a traditional vote-a-rama — an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink-exercise where both parties propose amendments on various topics.”

The committee markup is typically seen as a dress rehearsal for the floor debate. Budget debates on the floor enjoy an expedited process that allows all senators to offer, and get votes on, an unlimited number of amendments on a cornucopia of subjects. The process often involves hours and hours of clerks continuously calling the roll.

Not since the 2010 health care reconciliation bill has there been a budget vote-a-rama. The last budget resolution with an amendment free-for-all occurred in 2009, the last time Democrats produced a budget resolution.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told conservative talk radio host Laura Ingraham last week that he was looking forward to the budget debate, noting that Democrats have been able to blast unpopular parts of the budget plan outlined by House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin.

“We had no Democratic budget to criticize. This year, they’re going to pass one. It can be done with a simple majority,” the Kentucky Republican said. “They have enough votes, but it’ll be quite a debate.

“It will be replete with tax increases, and it will be on the Senate floor the week after next. We will have a number of amendments to it, but nothing kind of underscores the difference between the two parties like one of them having to produce a budget,” McConnell continued.

Democrats have argued that the 2011 debt limit deal served as an effective budget because it set future federal spending levels.

A Democratic leadership aide responded to McConnell saying Democrats “are happy to have this argument” about tax policy, pointing to polls that have demonstrated support for a fairer tax code.

Sessions, who has a safe Senate seat, dismissed the idea that politically charged budget votes might carry weight with voters.

“I think it’s a mistake … to think that voting on some of these issues is so huge, extraneous issues. Its conceivable that a vote could hurt somebody, but I’ve cast a lot of votes in vote-a-ramas and I don’t think one of them has come back to haunt me in an election. So I think that’s exaggerated.”

Sessions said that, given the country’s large debt and deficit, the debate should allow the nation to see where senators stand when it comes to issues such as whether the savings from the automatic spending cuts, known as the sequester, should be implemented.

Other GOP amendments are expected to include provisions from the Ryan budget and changes to some entitlements going forward.

“We will have an array of choices [to offer that are] sensible and relatively painless,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., another member of the budget committee.

It’s unclear whether any amendments on immigration will come up in the committee or on the Senate floor. Republicans in the past have offered proposals to underscore their position on immigration, including a 2009 Sessions amendment that would have created a point of order against any appropriations bill that failed to provide at least $2.6 billion for a border fence.

Sessions, who has been critical of illegal immigration and lax border security, said he doesn’t believe the issue will come up much, if at all, this time around.

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