Rank and file House Dems poised to rally behind Van Hollen budget proposal

Despite some deep reservations, rank-and-file House Democrats seem poised to rally behind their party's main alternative to Republicans’ 2013 budget.

Although almost 100 Democrats opposed August's debt-ceiling deal over its deep cuts and lack of stimulus spending, many of those same lawmakers appear ready to back Rep. Chris Van Hollen's (D-Md.) coming budget proposal, which will cap discretionary spending at the very same level.

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The Democrats say their hope to distinguish their party's plan from the Republicans' bill — combined with the need for party unity in a high-stakes election year — will likely trump their concerns over the top-line figure expected in the Van Hollen proposal.

"I would expect overwhelming support for anything but the Ryan budget," Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), an opponent of August's Budget Control Act (BCA), said Friday. "There might be some Democrats out there who want to dismantle Medicare, but I doubt it."

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), echoed that message. He conceded that the Van Hollen budget will likely be weaker, from the CBC's perspective, than the budget plan the CBC will introduce this week. But if the CBC budget fails, as it's expected to do, "then we'll move to the second best," Cleaver said, referring to Van Hollen's plan.

"Being in Congress means making choices between something that's horribly bad and something that's just bad," said Cleaver, who also opposed the BCA. "I don't think I would be as exuberant [about Van Hollen's plan], but clearly I'm going to vote on it."

Van Hollen is expected to release his budget this week. But on Thursday, the Maryland Democrat discussed the contours of the plan and predicted he can unite a majority of the conference behind it.

“I think we are going to have very strong support in our caucus for our alternative approach," he said. "It dramatizes the difference between how we approach deficit reduction and how the Republicans do.”

Van Hollen confirmed that his budget will adhere to the August debt deal, which capped discretionary spending at $1.047 trillion in fiscal year 2013, while using a combination of mandatory spending cuts and tax revenue increases to turn off the BCA's automatic cuts.

“We will essentially stick to the Budget Control Act levels in aggregate," Van Hollen said. "We will also replace the sequester with a balanced approach to deficit reduction the way the president does.”

That contrasts with the GOP proposal, authored by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.), which includes a 2013 spending cap of $1.028 trillion. Van Hollen, the ranking member of the Budget panel, said the Republicans' number "violates" the earlier deal while eroding the Democrats' trust in Republicans to negotiate earnestly.

Even some of the fiercest opponents of the BCA spending cuts say they're ready to endorse Van Hollen's proposal.

“I would be leaning to help them,” said Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), a BCA opponent and the lead author of yet another Democratic budget alternative offered by the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC). 

“His [Van Hollen's] budget is going to be aligned with the president’s budget," Honda said. "Any budget he does is going to be light years better than the Ryan plan."

While attention has been focused on the struggle of House GOP leaders to get centrist appropriators and Republican Study Committee members to unite behind the Ryan plan, Democratic leaders potentially face a similar challenge.

August's vote on the bipartisan BCA split House Democrats down the middle — 95 to 95 — with most opponents objecting to steep cuts in federal programs required to stay beneath the $1.047 trillion cap.

To register their discontent, both the Progressive and Black caucuses this week will offer their own sweeping alternatives to the Ryan and Van Hollen plans.

The CPC proposal includes $2.4 trillion in new stimulus spending, offset largely by steep tax hikes on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans. That spending would go toward new direct jobs programs, tax incentives for clean energy and other high-tech industries, and “approximately $1.7 trillion in widespread domestic investment.”

The CPC budget relies on unspent war savings from a quick drawdown in Afghanistan and Iraq, tax hikes on capital gains and the creation of new higher tax brackets for millionaires. Honda said the plan will help make Medicare more solvent by expanding on health cost changes in Obama's healthcare reform law.

The CBC's plan, set to be unveiled Monday, takes similar steps, including enormous increases in spending on education, job training, infrastructure and healthcare programs. In 2013 alone, the plan will devote $153 billion more than Obama's budget to domestic discretionary programs like Pell grants and NASA. Over 10 years, that figure rises to $594 billion.

Obama’s 2013 budget contains $350 billion in near-term stimulus. Van Hollen has said that, like the Obama budget, his plan will cut some $300 billion from mandatory spending and count the $1 trillion in discretionary cuts from the August deal.

Complicating matters for Democratic leaders, Blue Dogs want a Bowles-Simpson-like plan with $4 trillion in deficit reduction, including deep cuts to entitlements.

The House budget debate is scheduled to hit the chamber floor Wednesday, with final votes on Thursday.

A Democratic aide said mainstream Democrats are uncomfortable both with the Congressional Progressive Caucus budget and the Van Hollen alternatives.

“The progressive budget is implausible [and] the Van Hollen budget is a giveaway [to the GOP],” the aide said.

Still, the chance to rally around a contrasting vision to Ryan's bill appears to be eclipsing liberal insistence on a spike in stimulus spending. Democrats are gleeful because they see the GOP budget, which cuts spending by $5.3 trillion without raising taxes, as a "gift." 

"I am happy you introduced this. I am happy to run against it,” Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) told Ryan in a committee meeting last week. “You handed it to us. It defines our battle.”