The Hill - J. Taylor Rushing
Under the best circumstances, federal budgets are a torturous exercise involving 535 lawmakers with competing priorities.
Starting next week, the Senate will begin to build the 2009 fiscal budget under some of the absolute worst circumstances.
A charged atmosphere of hyper-sensitive politics. Three senators running for president and subject to daily, national scrutiny. Several members of both parties facing tough reelection races whose decisions will be watched closely by voters back home. A costly, unpopular war that may or may not continue in the long term. And a 51-49 partisan divide that will make any vote a narrow one.
“It’s going to be very, very difficult to achieve a consensus,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). “Any budget that’s discussed in a presidential year will have an impact on the presidential race.”
Expect fireworks over amendments, which both sides will use to put each other — and especially presidential contenders Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) — in tough spots.
“Each side tries to put in vulnerable amendments, and there’s a lot of them,” said Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “And it’s a little bit of sport. In the years I’ve been here, I’ve never seen anybody defeated by one of the budget amendments… I just hope it doesn’t get carried away, that there are just thousands of amendments.”
This year’s fights will look familiar, however, with coming clashes over taxes and domestic spending and a healthy collection of amendments on a variety of priorities.
The starting point: A plan unveiled by Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) that he said would balance the budget in four years while extending $300 billion worth of middle-class tax cuts over the five-year life of the budget. The committee approved the plan Thursday afternoon.
Conrad said the Senate budget will emphasize priorities such as promoting alternative energy, investing in the country’s roads, bridges, airports and rail lines, and boosting spending on education and veterans’ healthcare.
Another key priority — and fight — will be over a second economic stimulus package that Democrats are pushing with a $35 billion price tag. That will include a host of ideas to help the housing market, he said, such as mortgage assistance, increased Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds and ideas such as unemployment benefits and a boost in Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) funds. Republicans blocked some of those proposals last week on the Senate floor, but Conrad said Democrats intend to revive them as “insurance” against a further weakening of the economy.
“That’s a key source of help for jobs for the economy, and we’re trying to be proactive,” he said. “I can’t make Republicans’ case for them, because I don’t know why they’re opposing that.”
Republicans say the Democratic-written budget hikes spending by $211 billion and taxes by $1.2 trillion, meaning that 116 million Americans will pay more.
“Republicans fought hard for fiscal discipline last year, at a time when the economy was not the central concern of the American people,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Thursday on the Senate floor. “At a time when it is, we cannot be talking about raising taxes by tens of billions of dollars.
The Senate budget assumes a very modest economic growth for the rest of 2008 of just 1.6 percent as estimated by the Congressional Budget Office. But it assumes surpluses will eventually be reached, totaling $177 billion in 2012 and $160 in 2013.
Critically, the Senate is also proposing a one-year patch to spare approximately 20 million Americans from the Alternative Minimum Tax at a cost of $62 billion.
Much of next week’s fights will come over proposed amendments, including enforcement-related immigration bills. Republican Jim DeMint of South Carolina may push a “Complete the Fence” bill, for example, that would set a 2010 deadline to finish 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. DeMint said the government so far has only finished 167 miles.
Conrad said there are about 10 amendments so far, with at least five more still coming.
The voting will almost certainly be close. Budget resolutions aren’t subject to the 60-vote filibuster threshold, so the 51-49 Democratic majority will be adequate to pass most measures, assuming the conference stays united.
Last year, Democrats couldn’t even pass the budget without help. The 52-47 vote on May 17 united 48 Democrats, plus two Independents and Maine Republicans Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. This year, Collins is one of four Republicans facing tough reelections in November, along with Norm Coleman of Minnesota, John Sununu of New Hampshire and Gordon Smith of Oregon. Among the Democrats, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana is considered endangered.
Other senators are still mulling other ideas. Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), for example, plans an appropriations amendment to halt the Real ID Act, a 2005 law that mandated minimum driver’s license standards for all states and was promoted as a way to fight terrorism and enacted as part of an emergency war spending measure.
Alexander says only a fraction of the program’s $4 billion cost has been provided by Congress to the states. A former National Governors Association chairman, he says the program is a classic unfunded federal mandate.
“Most people who have been governor or mayor resent unfunded mandates from the federal government,” he said. “I’m one of them. If the federal government wants states to do this, the federal government should pay for it.”