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Senate puts off work on budget, again

By May 24, 2011

The issue: The problem with adopting a spending plan is that it will make some people very unhappy

Last Thursday, Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee put out a statement taunting, “Today marks the 750th day since the Democrat-led Senate last passed a budget.”

THE FAILURE of last year’s Democratic Congress to pass a budget was a contributing factor to the mess Congress now finds itself in. One hopes this year will be different, but maybe not.

It looks like the Republicans will get to periodically update their timeline, because the same day Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., announced that he was delaying final committee consideration of a 2012 budget.

Conrad’s reasoning for the delay is that the budget resolution, which can’t be filibustered and needs only a simple majority, may be needed to pass parts of whatever agreement is reached to raise the debt ceiling.

Those bipartisan negotiations are being led by Vice President Joe Biden. If the $14.295 trillion debt limit is not raised, the Treasury says the U.S. government will begin defaulting on its obligations around Aug. 2.

Even though economists and the financial markets say it’s a really bad idea, Congress quite likely will bump up against that deadline, and the impetus for any agreement may not be the country’s creditworthiness but the fact that lawmakers are due to go on a monthlong vacation.

HOWEVER, THAT will put Congress in another of its regular fits of tardiness. The 12 bills that fund the coming year’s government operations are supposed to be passed by the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year.

The House has just begun work on those bills, and without a budget, the Senate committees don’t know how much money they’ll have to work with.

There were hopes that a bipartisan “Gang of Six” senators would come up with a grand compromise on deficit reduction that, in addition to encompassing the budget, would agree on tax increases and entitlement cuts. But those hopes faded this past week when conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., pulled out of the group. He says it’s only a “sabbatical,” but it also means the Gang of Six will not be riding to the rescue anytime soon.

Conrad is said to have a finished budget in his pocket, one calling for $4 trillion in deficit cuts over 10 years, more than President Barack Obama’s budget but less than Republicans are demanding.

THE PROBLEM with adopting a budget is that it will make some people very unhappy.

The House-passed budget, crafted by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., contained a widely unpopular plan to begin replacing Medicare with a voucher system, handing Democrats a significant campaign issue for 2012.

Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, seeking to spare his members political pain, said he would not whip votes for the budget, leaving individual Republicans free to vote on the measure as they please. That led The Hill newspaper to headline: “McConnell leaves Ryan budget twisting in wind.”

But to draft a budget is necessarily to choose. It’s time for Senate Democrats to choose — and soon.

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