A Budget Watcher's Guide to the Action

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.)
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) (Alex Brandon - AP)
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By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 30, 2009

As the House and Senate take up their versions of President Obama's budget plan this week, the congressional budget process will be on full display. While the quirky, arcane proceedings can be mystifying at times, here are five things you need to know to follow the action.

1. Congress holds the purse strings. Though the Democrats who control Congress are deferential to the Democrat residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, House and Senate budget leaders have made significant changes to Obama's budget request, slicing as much as $15 billion from non-defense programs for next year, significantly scaling back the president's tax-cutting agenda, and dropping all details related to controversial proposals to expand health coverage and fight global warming. The goal: to try to contain skyrocketing deficits under Obama's proposal.

2. There will be a conference committee. Sometimes the two chambers are able to resolve their differences by ping-ponging the budget resolution back and forth between them. This year, however, with the House pressing the use of a procedure known as reconciliation on behalf of the White House and against the wishes of some influential Senate Democrats, the conference committee will have bigger fish to fry.

3. Reconciliation is probably in the cards. Though Senate leaders have yet to officially declare their intention to use reconciliation, all but a handful of Senate Democrats support using the maneuver for health-care reform, as do senior administration officials. The powerful procedural maneuver creates a privileged bill that cannot be filibustered in the Senate. That means Democrats could pass the measure with 51 votes -- without any help from Republicans -- instead of the usual 60 votes needed to get anything significant and controversial accomplished.

If the House version of reconciliation is retained in conference committee, key committees will be instructed to produce legislation to reform the nation's health-care system and to expand access to higher education by the end of September. The only other instructions: The health and education legislation must reduce deficit projections by at least $1 billion over the next five years.

4. The budget does not enact Obama's agenda. The budget resolution is a nonbinding document that does not require the president's signature and does not have the force of law. Instead, it merely sets guidelines for lawmakers as they craft spending bills and legislation to address broader policies.

In fact, budget leaders in both the House and Senate have deleted all details of Obama's top domestic priorities. Instead, both resolutions contain vague language establishing "reserve funds" that permit the committees of jurisdiction to craft legislation to implement those initiatives so long as they do not increase the deficit.

5. Despite some squabbling, the Democrats have the votes. Though centrist Democrats in both chambers have complained about the massive deficits, the party is united behind the president's core goals. Both chambers are expected to approve the resolutions this week. And unless the reconciliation fight derails it, the budget resolution will receive final approval shortly after lawmakers return from their Easter break.


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