Lobbyists in a 'tizzy' over a 'dead' budget

The White House’s annual budget request may have as much to do with what the government ends up spending as Punxsutawney Phil’s shadow has with the arrival of spring.

The White House’s annual budget request may have as much to do with what the government ends up spending as Punxsutawney Phil’s shadow has with the arrival of spring.

But while Congress will craft the budget, the document, released yesterday, always creates a stir among lobbyists whose clients are eager to learn how they have fared.

“It’s a dead-on-arrival document that gets everyone in a tizzy,” one Democratic lobbyist said. Dead on arrival because Democrats are eager to distinguish their priorities from the president’s, and the Constitution grants Congress the power of the purse.

Given that the biggest disagreement between the Democratic Congress and the Bush White House is over the Iraq war, differences of opinion over spending ironically may not extend to spending on the war, where Democrats are nervous about restricting money spent on the troops.

The Senate, however, may debate a non-binding resolution on the war, an issue that will keep corporate lobbyists on the sidelines in that body and will have zero effect on war funding.

The budget request precipitates a tizzy because the four-volume, 10-pound document marks the start of the debate, if not the final say on spending.

Committees will begin hashing out the request this week, with agency heads testifying about their portions of the budget.

Democratic committee heads joined major trade groups in noting yesterday what was missing in the president’s $2.9 trillion request.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman, credited the administration for the $3.1 billion request for alternative fuels, which Bingaman called a “major increase.”

But he questioned the “enormous increases” on developing technologies to reprocess nuclear fuel, something nuclear industry and advocates such as Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), the ranking member on Energy and Natural Resources, welcomed.

The new chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, Rep. Bart Gordon (D) of Tennessee, criticized the administration for under-funding NASA, among other things.

Bush would cut funding to the National Institutes of Science and Technology by 4 percent, which includes the elimination of the manufacturing extension partnership (MEP). Cutting MEP is something groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers have opposed.

There’s plenty in the budget to make the healthcare industry go code blue.

A large measure of the president’s plan to reduce spending and balance the budget depends on the roughly $100 million Bush wants to trim from Medicare and Medicaid.

Hospital groups, in particular, pounced quickly upon proposals that would hit them in the pocketbook.

“The budget’s proposed Medicare hospital cuts are totally unjustified,” Federation of American Hospitals President Chip Kahn said in a statement.

“It ignores the evidence and would aggravate an already difficult situation for seniors.”

National Association of Children’s Hospitals President and Chief Executive Lawrence McAndrews said, “Together the cuts represent a giant step backward for children’s healthcare.”

Committee briefings will extend beyond the budget as Congress begins the process of regular order, where bills start in subcommittee, move to committee, and then make their way to the floor.

Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) informed members last week that this Friday the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change would brief the committee in a closed-door meeting on the results of the its most recent report on global warming.

Vice President Al Gore, star of “An Inconvenient Truth,” has also accepted an invitation to testify before the committee on global warming.

The debate over the switch to digital television powers up again this week as well.

Congress has set the deadline for the switch from analog to digital television for 2009. In doing so, lawmakers also allocated two-thirds of the broadcast spectrum for private tech companies to bid on in an auction expected to raise at least $12 billion.

The remaining third would be reserved for use by first responders. 

Cyren Call Communications, a company created by Nextel founder Morgan O’Brien, is pushing to switch the spectrum allocation ratio, reserving two-thirds for public safety and other for first responders.

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, a leading presidential candidate, has written a bill that favors that approach. Groups such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police support the switch, too.

On the opposite end is the DTV Coalition, which includes Microsoft, Intel, Verizon Wireless, Cisco and Dell.

That group plans to release a white paper today that shows why the scheduled spectrum allocation is the best way to build an interoperable public-safety communications system.

The third of the spectrum given up by broadcasters will be plenty for first responders, they argue, and switching would also likely complicate the switch to digital TV.

The coalition’s case includes another potent argument in budget season. The current ratio is expected to raise at least $12 billion. If fewer megahertz of spectrum are available at auction, Congress will have less money to pay for its long list of priorities.

Jeffrey Young contributed to this column.

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