The Washington Post

Senate budget panel to craft a spending plan, chairman says

The Senate Democratic Party leadership: Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) speak to reporters in 2011. (Melina Mara/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The Senate Budget Committee will draft a budget blueprint this year, chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) announced Wednesday, the initial step toward the first adoption of a Senate budget in four years.

Murray’s announcement follows a similar pledge by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) over the weekend. But Murray’s statement is more significant, since this month she assumed the chairmanship of the key committee responsible for moving the spending plan to the floor.

It also comes as the Republican-led House plans to vote Wednesday on a bill that would suspend the nation’s borrowing limit into May — but also impose a requirement that both chambers of Congress pass a budget by April 15 or have their pay docked.

Although Republicans are likely to credit their insistence on the “No Budget, No Pay” rule for the Senate panel’s decision, Murray insisted that her plan to write a budget this year has been long in the works.

“I’ve been discussing this path with my colleagues in the weeks since the year-end deal before I officially became chairman of this committee, and now that Congress is back in session, we are ready to get to work,” she said.

Murray promised a budget that would pursue a “balanced approach” that protects programs for the middle class. That likely means her committee’s proposal will include higher tax revenues, which would collide with a House budget to be proposed by its budget committee chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

Ryan has promised House conservatives a budget that will balance within the next decade and will require cuts far deeper even than the budgets — already slammed by Democrats for their sharp spending and tax cuts-- that he has proposed for the last two years, which each took nearly 30 years to come to balance.

“Democrats are eager to contrast our pro-growth, pro-middle class budget priorities with the House Republicans’ Ryan budget that would end Medicare as we know it, gut investments in jobs and programs middle-class families depend on, and cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations,” Murray said. “We know that when our priorities are laid out next to Republicans’, the public stands with us.”

The vast differences between the two budgets will make it harder to achieve a long-stated Republican goal to return Congress to its “regular order,” in which each chamber adopts a budget resolution, which are then negotiated in a joint conference committee.

Since 1974, both chambers have been legally required to pass a budget by April 15, but there’s no penalty for failing to do so. Budget resolutions outline long-term spending and revenue policies, but they do not have the force of law.

Instead, the amount of money spent by government agencies each year is actually determined under annual appropriations measures. The government is currently operating under an appropriations measure that expires March 27. If Congress does not act to authorize spending for the remainder of the 2013 fiscal year by that day, the government will shut down.

Democrats have been hesitant to bring a budget to the floor because doing so would likely allow Republicans to offer a series of amendments that could force politically difficult votes for their members. Leaders have argued that it would be futile to go through that process, given that the Senate was unlikely to agree with the House on a joint budget resolution. Democrats have also argued that the exercise has been unnecessary since the passage of the Budget Control Act in the August 2011, the last time Congress moved to allow the debt ceiling to rise. That bill included caps on spending for two years, thus providing on overall figure for the government to spend in the timeframe.

Murray noted in on Wednesday that, with their suspension bill, Republicans might be agreeing to resolve an immediate crisis over raising the debt ceiling, but she suggested that broader clashes are ahead. Republicans have said they’ll use other tactics in the coming months to force Democrats to a budget compromise, including automatic across-the-board spending cuts set to hit on March 1 and the March 27 expiration of a funding bill to keep government open.

Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.

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