Sen. Judd Gregg fills budget bill with a host of reforms

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) is adding a host of budget-process reforms to a line-item-veto bill in an effort to win the support of conservatives on his panel, but the new measures could cripple the legislation if it is sent to the floor.

Gregg said some of the additional provisions were tacked onto the bill “for the sake of building a ship that will float.” Gregg, who has not previously backed the bill’s biennial budgeting plan, acknowledged that he is not as pleased with some elements as he is with others.

But the more expansive approach is likely to attract votes from several committee conservatives, including Sens. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who might otherwise have been reluctant to help move it to the floor.

The measure, to be unveiled at a press conference today, would employ powerful tools for slashing mandatory and discretionary spending.

In addition to the line-item veto and biennial budgeting, it includes a mechanism for cutting entitlement spending if deficit targets are not met, statutory discretionary spending caps backed up by across-the-board cuts, and a panel like the federal base-closing commission that would cut other government programs, according to lawmakers and aides familiar with the proposal.

The most significant component of Gregg’s bill would apply Gramm-Rudman-Hollings spending-enforcement rules to entitlements.

“We’re going to have a Gregg enforcement mechanism that will make Gramm-Rudman look like small potatoes,” Gregg said.

If the budget deficit grows to more than half a percent of the gross domestic product in 2012 or thereafter, an entitlement-cutting reconciliation bill would be generated, according to a senior GOP aide. If Congress failed to pass it, “sequestration,” a process for enacting across-the-board cuts, would kick in, the aide said. Social Security would be among the programs exempted from the automatic cuts.

Domenici, author and longtime champion of the biennial budgeting plan, said he is pleased with its inclusion. “It’s terrific,” he said.

But the rave reviews from conservatives may be tempered by the reality of opposition on the floor from Democrats and some Republicans.

The measure would not apply pay-as-you-go rules to tax cuts, an omission that is likely to increase Democratic opposition.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), a former chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said the inclusion of biennial budgeting makes him more opposed to the line-item legislation. He said such a plan is “putting the cart before the horse.”

Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said it is too early to tell when he will schedule the measure for the floor, and Gregg said it is unlikely to come up before the July 4 recess.

“I don’t think this package is going anywhere,” Domenici said.

Even if they help Gregg cobble together a majority on his committee, the additional items may end up weighing down the line-item legislation.

“He has loaded up that ship with enough to sink it — and maybe that’s what he’s trying to do,” a senior Democratic aide said.

Gregg’s line-item proposal would vary from President Bush’s request by giving Congress 45 days to respond to rescission requests, limiting the White House to four packages of requests per year, sunsetting the power in four years and allowing the Joint Committee on Taxation to define “targeted” tax benefits, according to the senior GOP aide.

The biennial budgeting plan, backed by Domenici and Sessions, closely tracks Domenici’s bill, according to those familiar with the legislation.

Congress would adopt a two-year budget each Congress and handle appropriations bills only in the first year under the Domenici bill.

A two-year budget cycle would give lawmakers more time to focus on the merits of programs and to find targets for elimination, supporters contend. But critics say the plan amounts to a handover of budget authority to the White House — an argument that also has been used against the line-item veto — and would result in an increase in supplemental spending bills.

The program-cutting panel is the brainchild of Brownback, who has introduced his bill repeatedly with little success to date.

On the Republican side, appropriators could stand in the way of Gregg’s package, though Domenici, Gregg and several of the biennial budgeting bill’s co-sponsors are on the spending committee.

“I find it difficult to imagine a Senate that would have 60 votes to pass this,” the senior Democratic aide said, noting that nearly every Democrat could find something to dislike in the overall bill.

But the Republican leadership almost certainly will make an effort to bring the legislation to the floor.

In March, Frist cut a deal with spending hawks in which he promised floor time for budget-process reform legislation and they agreed to allow a debt-limit increase to move forward without amendment. The line-item veto is a priority for Bush and many Republicans in Congress.