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Gamesmanship Over Budget in Full Swing as Reid Prepares Next Move

Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and his team are preparing to turn up the pressure on Republicans over a budget conference committee aimed at reaching a broad debt deal.

Senior aides said the top Democrat was expected to seek a deal with the GOP this week to formally appoint Senate budget conference negotiators. They said the move was a response to the statement by Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio last week that he will not name House conference negotiators unless both chambers can first work out a framework for agreement.

Boehner cited concerns about a House rule that would allow rank-and-file members on both sides to force votes, or what Boehner called “politically motivated bombs,” on motions to instruct conferees if no agreement has been reached within 20 days once a conference committee is named.

The political jockeying over whether to name conferees is part of the gamesmanship the parties are undertaking now that the House and Senate, for the first time in four years, have competing budgets in hand. House Republicans want to keep budget discussions moving behind the scenes while Democrats, after years of GOP complaints that they would not undertake serious budget talks, are looking to turn the tables.

“If House Republicans continue not to act in a bicameral way with the Senate on a budget conference, then it’s likely [Reid] will seek a unanimous consent agreement to appoint conferees,” one senior Senate Democratic aide said.

“It’s likely he will take the first step,” the aide said.

It remains unclear, for now, whether Republicans would block the appointment of conferees, either to provide political cover for Boehner or to force a second budget debate with amendments. “It would seem they are not sincere about wanting a budget resolution if they block the appointment of conferees,” said Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois.

If Republicans block the naming of negotiators, the Democratic aide said Reid is unlikely to use new streamlined Senate procedures designed to make it easier to launch conference committees.

Senate rules adopted at the start of the session roughly cut in half the weeklong period previously required to appoint budget conferees without a consent agreement.

If Republicans won’t grant unanimous consent to appoint conferees, Reid still would need to call up the GOP budget resolution (H Con Res 25) the House adopted to move forward. He also would need to allow 50 hours of debate, opening the door to the second budget “vote-a-rama” of the year.

But another senior Democratic aide said Reid was unlikely to allow Republicans another window, which could force his members to take more tough votes before the midterm election.

Meantime, House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray of Washington have emphasized their willingness to continue discussions in hopes of laying groundwork for a formal conference.

“Time is the ally of everyone,” said former Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad of North Dakota. “I really anticipate, as we get later in the year, there will be an opportunity for an agreement. We will get more on the spending side, and more on the revenue side.”

Karl Struble, a Democratic political consultant, said Reid’s decision reflected a cautious Democratic political strategy tailored for a midterm election that usually favors the party that does not hold the White House.

Struble said Democrats were hoping to hold on to and possibly enlarge their Senate majority by emphasizing issues that have been blocked by Republicans. “It’s an outgrowth of what you see happening on gun legislation and immigration. The public can see nothing is happening,” Struble said.

“The important thing is to be reasonable. If we are reasonable and nothing is getting done, then it must be the other people are not being reasonable,” Struble said.

Republicans argue that pre-conference frameworks for negotiations and delays in appointing conference negotiators have been common in recent years.

They point out, for example, that the Democratic House majority in 2009 waited until May before naming negotiators for the last budget conference committee. That was about two months after the House adopted its fiscal blueprint.

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