Third-party groups join chorus clamoring for 2011 federal budget

By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post staff writer
Friday, April 16, 2010; 4:07 PM

For congressional Democrats hoping to avoid the political hits involved in writing a budget this year, not writing a budget is proving to be nearly as painful. All week, Republicans have been accusing Democratic leaders of shirking their duty to face up to the nation's budget woes. On Friday, outside budget groups began to join the chorus.

In news releases, nonprofits such as the Concord Coalition, which advocates for balanced budgets, and Public Notice, a new organization by former Bush administration trade spokeswoman Gretchen Hamel, called on lawmakers to reconsider.

"WHERE'S THE BUDGET?" blared the release from Hamel's group, which bills itself as nonpartisan.

"Families across our nation have faced serious economic challenges this year. They faced these challenges head on by sitting down at the kitchen table, adding up the numbers, and making the tough choices," added Diane Lim Rogers, chief economist for the Concord Coalition who blogs as EconomistMom. "No family should expect to succeed by throwing the budget out the window and hoping for the best. Congress shouldn't either."

The criticism comes as House Democrats are trying to decide whether to craft a budget plan in advance of this fall's midterm elections. Many lawmakers, particularly fiscal conservatives from Republican-leaning districts, are reluctant to vote for a budget blueprint certain to forecast large deficits in each of the next five years.

Last year's deficit hit $1.4 trillion -- a postwar record, and about 10 percent of the economy -- and this year's deficit could be even bigger. The deficit is expected to drop slightly in 2011, the fiscal year currently before lawmakers. But the administration predicts that the lingering effects of the recession and President Obama's plan to extend some Bush-era tax cuts past their scheduled expiration this year will keep deficits hovering above $700 billion -- or about 4 percent of the economy -- through 2015.

Democratic budget leaders say they can improve on those numbers, but it's not clear how, given that Obama's forecast relies on tax increases such as a new limit on itemized deductions for the wealthy that remain unpopular on Capitol Hill. Obama's $3.8 trillion request for fiscal 2011 also includes a three-year freeze on discretionary spending.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) vows to be particularly aggressive. The Senate is planning to write a budget -- in part, because Senate rules would permit Republicans to do so if Democrats don't, according to congressional sources -- and Conrad said this week that his spending plan will bring the 2015 deficit down to 3 percent of the economy, the target Obama has set for a presidentially created deficit commission. Conrad declined to offer specifics, but said his committee will begin publicly assembling the plan in the next few weeks and send it to the Senate floor before the Memorial Day recess.

The politics are harder in the House. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said earlier this week that, while a budget resolution is "important," "it is difficult to pass budgets in election years because, you know, they reflect what is the status. And the status of this country was brought into deep debt by the economic policies of the Bush administration."

But as the pressure mounts, House Democrats may yet reconsider. Though Congress as a whole has failed to approve a final budget resolution on four occasions -- 1998, 2002, 2004 and 2006, all election years -- the House has approved its own budget plan in every year since modern budget rules were adopted in 1974.

On Thursday, 73 House Republicans noted that fact in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Not writing a budget, the letter said, "would set a terrible precedent, and we strongly urge you to reject these reports and encourage the House to consider a budget resolution later this year."

Aides say House leaders hope to make a decision by mid-May.

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