For some in House, budget choice was none of the above

Call it the “None of the Above” caucus.

When the House considered five competing 2012 budget plans from across the political spectrum last Friday, 24 lawmakers voted against every one of the proposals. The menu choices included the official Democratic and Republican plans, as well as alternatives from conservatives, liberals and the Congressional Black Caucus.

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Many of the 24 were Blue-dog Democrats, who complained the political center was excluded.

The proposals “represented, by and large, the extremes, and the solution lays somewhere in the middle,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), a leader on budget issues for the Blue Dog Coalition.

The Blue Dogs did not release a full budget proposal this year, but the group earlier this month endorsed a long-term fiscal blueprint modeled in part on the recommendations of President Obama’s Bowles-Simpson debt commission. That panel called for reducing the deficit by $4 trillion over 10 years with a combination of two-thirds spending cuts and one-third tax increases.

Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) considered offering a budget amendment containing the commission’s proposal, but withdrew it over fears that a poor House vote would stunt momentum for a bipartisan agreement on deficit reduction and interfere with the negotiations among the Senate’s Gang of Six.

“I do not think it is wise to risk doing anything to derail or impair those behind-the-scenes negotiations, which I am told by key senators in both parties could be the result of a premature House vote,” Cooper said in a floor statement last week.

He added that the Bowles-Simpson plan “is not the only solution for our problems, but it is the fastest, fairest and most feasible solution that we know of today. As soon as this House is able to consider it calmly and sensibly, the House must do so.”

The Blue Dogs have seen their membership diminish to 25 lawmakers after dozens lost reelection races in the GOP wave last fall.

The 24 lawmakers who opposed all five budgets included 21 Democrats and three of the four Republicans — Reps. David McKinley (W.Va.), Walter Jones (N.C.) and Denny Rehberg (Mont.) — who voted against the GOP plan authored by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.). Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) voted only for the conservative Republican Study Committee’s alternative.

In interviews and statements, Democrats said Obama’s decision to deliver a major speech in which he recalibrated his budget proposal changed the political dynamic of the votes. In his speech last week, the president proposed a more ambitious plan for deficit reduction than the one offered by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) for House Democrats.

“It just didn’t go far enough for me in terms of deficit reduction, but I thought the effort was a good one,” freshman Rep. John Carney (D-Del.) said in an interview, referring to the Van Hollen proposal.

Carney said he voted against the Democratic alternative over pressure from party leaders. “There were some folks who weren’t happy,” he said. The Ryan budget, he said, was “too extreme.”
He said he was less concerned about choosing between flawed proposals at the outset of the debate than about the imperative of getting an ultimate solution.

“To me, the most important thing is getting something done, not staking out a position at this point,” Carney said.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said he preferred the level of spending cuts of the Blue Dog proposal but the higher tax rates of the plans offered by the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

“None of them, in my opinion, hit the right mix of spending reductions, revenues and deficit reductions,” he said.

While the Van Hollen plan, along with Obama, calls for ending the George W. Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy, the progressives propose allowing all of the Bush tax rates to expire.

“Just think of what a different world we’d be in,” DeFazio said. “If all the Bush tax cuts had expired, we wouldn’t have record deficits this year, and we would be headed toward a 10-year deficit that’s half of what’s projected. That’s a pretty darn good start.”

Schrader predicted the Blue Dog proposal, despite being withdrawn last week, would “be the middle ground at the end of the day.”

Still, he agreed with Cooper’s decision to hold off on demanding a vote.

“Now is not the time. We’re still locked in a highly partisan atmosphere,” Schrader said. “Putting forward a thoughtful, middle-ground resolution wasn’t going to get any votes from either side. All the liberals would say no. All the conservatives would say no, and they’d be dragging their moderate members with them. So it just wasn’t the time.”