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Signs of Life in the Dead-on-Arrival Budgets

The two fundamentally different budget plans being unveiled on opposite sides of the Capitol today are both dead on arrival. But at least they have arrived.

Not so, of course, the president’s fiscal policy blueprint, which is still MIA. His plan is supposed to kick-start the annual congressional budget process. The thick volumes from OMB have been late in arriving on the Hill’s doorstep in many other years. But never in the history of the modern budget process (which dates to 1975) has the president submitted a budget after the House and Senate have produced budget resolutions of their own.

That’s what’s happening this year. President Obama’s proposal looks likely for a rollout on April 8, the Monday Congress returns from its spring break.  And he’s not likely to offer any specifics about it during his meetings with the four congressional caucuses during the next three days.

The White House has signaled the spending and revenue line items will actually be ready by March 25, the start of the recess, but there’s little point in delivering the books to a deserted Capitol. And, besides, the delay could actually afford the president an opportunity to set the parameters for the final round in this year’s budget debate — which may also be the climactic fiscal policy deliberations of his presidency.

This may afford him one final push for a “grand bargain” that knocks another $1.5 trillion off the deficit in the next decade, combining a revenue-raising simplification of the tax code with meaningful restraints on the growth of Medicare, Social Security and other entitlements. It may also allow him to replace the dreaded sequester with a more rational and pro-active prescription for holding defense and domestic discretionary spending at bay.

His budget is guaranteed headlines, not just because the president’s budget always makes the front page. More importantly, by the time it comes out, the two congressional budget resolutions on course for adoption in the next week will have been sitting on a shelf for two weeks, their irreconcilable differences impossible to miss. It’s at that point when Obama will have an orchestrated opening for one final drive for the “balanced approach” that has proved so elusive the past three years

The House plan, which Paul D. Ryan officially unveiled this morning, will be adopted entirely with Republican votes next week. That’s because it once again relies entirely on $4.6 trillion in spending cuts, including his remake of and limitation on Medicare, to reach balance in a decade. What’s new, in the main, is that it relies not only on compulsory completion of the Keystone XL pipeline and improved economic forecasts – which mean more revenue – but also on the tax hikes enacted in January and the Medicare cuts dictated by the health care law, even though the GOP continues to profess disdain for both.

The Senate plan, which Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray will detail to her Democratic colleagues over lunch (with Obama in the room), will similarly be adopted with nothing but votes from her own party next week. As many as five members of her caucus will vote against it, meaning Vice President Joe Biden will need to be ready to cast the tie-breaker. The limited support is because it does not envision a path to black ink and would instead combine almost $1 trillion in new taxes with $1 trillion in alternative-to-the-sequester spending curbs – a 50-50 split that’s way more tax-heavy than the president’s been talking about, and totally impossible to sell in the red states. The likeliest to go against the party grain are Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mark Begich of Alaska, each of whom is running for re-election next year in a state carried by Mitt Romney.

That Murray has concluded her formula can win the minimally required support of 90 percent of her colleagues amounts to a decent triumph because it will mean the Democrats have become sufficiently unified to get a budget through the Senate for the first time since Obama’s first year in office. For them as much as for the House GOP, completing budgets now allow the parties to define their preferred visions of the government’s role, a necessary predicate if the really hard bargaining with Obama is ever to get started later in the year.

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