House Democrats wary of tough vote wait for Senate to act on budget plan

House Democrats are waiting for the Senate to act before deciding on the way forward on a budget resolution, reflecting a wariness over taking a tough vote on large deficits in an election year.

Democrats will watch what the Senate Budget Committee does when it marks up a budget resolution for fiscal 2011 on Wednesday and Thursday, aides to House Democratic leaders and fiscally conservative Blue Dogs said Monday.

“We continue to discuss budget priorities and deficit reduction in our proposal with our caucus,” said Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “As the Speaker has said, the plan is to have a budget.”

Pelosi, who said at the start of the year that she was already in “campaign mode,” has privately told Democrats facing tough reelection races that she will protect them from taking votes that could hurt them back home. By allowing the Senate to go first, House Democrats can lessen the chance they’ll take a politically perilous vote on a measure that ends up stalling because of differences between the two chambers.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said this month that it would be “difficult” to pass a budget resolution this year, but he and Pelosi have since said they plan to bring a resolution to the floor.

Democrats have said that it’s important for both chambers to produce a resolution, but not necessary in the House. Through its Rules Committee, the House can set spending caps for appropriations bill without a resolution.

“We don’t have a Rules Committee, so we are more governed by the Budget Enforcement Act, so that makes getting a budget resolution even more important [for us],” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.).

The non-binding budget resolution sets discretionary spending caps for the coming fiscal year, lays out how the majority plans to deal with the short- and medium-term fiscal situation and allows for the option of moving legislation through the fast-track reconciliation process.

House Republicans said they would ridicule Democrats if they decide not to do a budget this year.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), said it would be “utterly irresponsible” for Democrats to ignore the budget given the high jobless rate and large deficit projections.

Congress has failed to pass a final budget resolution just four times — 1998, 2002, 2004 and 2006 — since the Budget Enforcement Act was signed into law in 1974. The Senate was the only chamber that failed to pass any budget resolution; that was in 2002.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the proposals outlined in President Barack Obama’s budget request would lead to deficits that average nearly $1 trillion. The idea of voting for a budget resolution that would produce a deficit of that size has given pause to centrist Democrats facing voters in November. 

While Obama’s proposal would cut in half a deficit of around $1.5 trillion, or 10 percent of gross domestic product, by 2014, the deficit would never fall below 4 percent of GDP — which is above the White House’s own 3 percent target. Both Conrad and Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.), chairman of the House Budget Committees, have said deficits need to be trimmed more than that.

Conrad said Monday he’s aiming to produce a budget resolution that would eventually hit the 3 percent deficit target. He added that he hasn’t been asked by Senate Democratic leaders or the White House to include reconciliation instructions in his budget draft.

Blue Dog Democrats will be key to the passage of any budget resolution in the House. They have made fiscal responsibility their mantra, voting for last year’s budget resolution only after House leaders committed to pressing a pay-as-you-go budget-enforcement statute on reluctant Senate Democrats.

The Blue Dogs held several meetings last week to discuss whether the bloc could back a budget this year, but they have yet to decide.

“We’re still working on it,” an aide to one Blue Dog said. “The plan right now is to see what the Senate produces this week.”

Blue Dogs this year have called for cutting discretionary spending unrelated to national defense by 2 percent each year for the next three years and a deficit target for 2015 of “primary balance” — where federal revenue equals spending except for money paid on debt interest. 

The Blue Dog proposals take what the president proposed and go further. The president’s budget request calls for a three-year, non-security discretionary spending freeze and a deficit equal to 3 percent of GDP — which is roughly equal to primary balance. Obama proposes reaching that deficit target through policies to be decided after the election by a bipartisan commission. That panel will look at spending cuts, tax increases and changes to entitlement programs to find the savings needed to get to that level, and it will make policy recommendations in December. The Democratic leaders of both chambers have pledged to bring those recommendations up for votes.