By Erik Wasson
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) is moving forward with his own budget resolution amid signs that the bipartisan Gang of Six talks he has championed are sputtering.
Conrad briefed his Democratic colleagues Tuesday on a budget resolution he has drafted separately from the Gang of Six talks. A committee markup of the plan could come as soon as Monday.
He said his decision to roll out a Democratic budget should not be interpreted as a sign that the Gang of Six talks have collapsed.
“There are other ways to deal with what the Group of Six might come up with — you could deal with that outside of a budget resolution,” Conrad said.
But the fact that the negotiations remain ongoing is a disappointment for Conrad, who hoped the group would strike a deal this week in order to influence the deficit talks commencing Thursday under Vice President Joe Biden.
The bipartisan Gang of Six — made up of Conrad and Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) — has been meeting for weeks to try and hash out a long-term solution to the budget deficit.
The group met again Tuesday after a long negotiating session on Monday. Conrad, Durbin and Coburn did not appear upbeat when the round of talks ended.
“Like any negotiation, some hours you’re up, and some hours you are not,” Conrad said.
Conrad said his draft budget achieves $4 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years — the same as the president’s fiscal commission. President Obama proposed $3 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years in a speech last month.
The budget resolution already passed by the House cuts $5.8 trillion in spending over 10 years, transforms Medicare and does not include tax increases. Democrats have declared it dead on arrival in the Senate.
Conrad said his draft draws heavily on the fiscal commission’s ideas and includes tax-code reform that eliminates deductions while lowering rates. It also allocates new revenue for deficit reduction.
The Budget chairman said there would be some savings from entitlements in his plan. Like the president, Conrad proposes paying for the so-called “doc fix,” under which Congress routinely avoids reducing physician payments under Medicare, without offsetting the added expenditures.
He said he would not emulate Ryan’s plan to turn Medicare into a kind of voucher system, which Conrad described as “shredding” the program. Conrad’s draft does not touch Social Security.
The budget resolution will move through the Budget Committee, Conrad said, contrary to the worries of some Republicans that it would head straight to a floor vote.
Budget Committee ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said Conrad told him to expect a committee markup next Monday, but that there would not be advance copies available for a briefing. He said this is a sign that Conrad’s will be a partisan budget.
After being briefed on Conrad’s plan, fiscal conservative Democrats seemed pleased. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who has called on Democrats to embrace spending cuts, said he liked much of what he saw.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has warned Democrats not to sign on to any budget plan until the outcome of talks with Republicans and the administration over the debt ceiling become clear.
Reid noted that the Conrad effort is only one of several budget options on the table, including the president’s 2012 plan and the possible Gang of Six compromise.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) expressed optimism that the talks led by Biden will lead to a viable compromise.
“Those talks are beginning Thursday and will, in my view, lead to some kind of conclusion because, as you know, the clock is ticking,” McConnell said.