Sidelined Senate Republicans plan to jump into 2012 budget game

Largely sidelined during the government shutdown negotiations, Senate Republicans are looking to play a starring role in the fiscal 2012 budget debate.

Freshman Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) plans to unveil a conservative budget alternative that would balance the budget within 10 years. It’s an aggressive move from a new member in the tradition-bound upper chamber, but his measure is expected to attract strong support from the GOP caucus.

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Over the past month, Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) has been the leading GOP voice in the standoff over fiscal 2011 spending levels. And in the past week, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) has emerged as the go-to Republican in the debate over the fiscal 2012 budget. 

Senate conservatives are tired of ceding ground to House Republicans, grumbling that the blueprint unveiled by Ryan does not balance the budget soon enough.

The spending and revenue trajectories set by Ryan’s plan wouldn’t balance the budget for 26 years, according to some conservative analysts.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), ranking Republican on the Senate Budget panel, applauded Ryan’s plan while acknowledging he would prefer a proposal that balances spending and revenue over a shorter timeline.

“I’d like to see it be reached sooner,” he said of a balanced budget.

A Republican aide said the Toomey proposal will give conservatives a

deficit-reduction plan to support instead of a compromise expected from a bipartisan group known as the Gang of Six.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) last month introduced a five-year plan to balance the budget, calling for the elimination of the departments of Education, Energy, Commerce and Housing and Urban Development.

It’s the first time Senate veterans can remember rank-and-file members — let alone recently elected freshmen — proposing alternative budget proposals.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had anything like that in the Senate,” said William Hoagland, who served as Republican staff director of the Senate Budget panel from 1986 to 2003. “Never from a freshman member.”

Senate Republican aides say Toomey’s plan is more politically viable than Paul’s proposal and predict GOP lawmakers will coalesce behind Toomey. 

Toomey gave a presentation of his alternative budget at a meeting with Senate Republican colleagues Wednesday afternoon.

He declined to discuss the specifics of his legislation and was careful to praise the House GOP plan.

“I think Ryan deserves all the credit in the world for the very, very thoughtful, very visionary budget that has so many constructive policy reforms,” Toomey said.

But Toomey splits from Ryan on several important points, said a GOP source familiar with his plan. Toomey seeks to balance the budget in less than half the time as Ryan. 

Hoagland said Toomey would have to craft an especially bold plan to balance the government’s books within a decade. He estimates Toomey would have to cut spending by 25 percent in the year 2021 — relative to the baseline projected in January by the Congressional Budget Office — to balance the budget if the economy doesn’t improve dramatically. 

A GOP senator who heard Toomey’s presentation said his plan assumes more favorable economic growth over the next decade.

A Republican familiar with Toomey’s plan said that “[Toomey] uses realistic growth numbers because he recognizes that pro-growth policies have an impact on the economy. It’s not as ambitious as [the Office of Management and Budget’s] numbers.”

The source added: “It lowers spending more than Ryan’s plan in certain categories. It has lower spending than Ryan’s plan by a modest amount.”

By offering a plan to balance the budget in 10 years, Senate conservatives hope to reassert themselves into the national conversation about fiscal issues. House Republicans have received more attention in the clash over 2011 spending levels.

Senate Republican leadership aides note that Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) kept in frequent contact with Boehner during talks with the White House. But the role of the Senate GOP leadership was kept largely from public view, and rank-and-file Republicans had little say on the final deal struck late last week. 

Without Toomey’s proposal, Senate Republicans might not have a budget blueprint to call their own. 

Sessions is not sure whether he will put one out through the Budget Committee.

“Normally the minority does not offer a budget in the Senate,” he said, noting that former Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.), who served as ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, did not put out an alternative budget plan last year. 

Sessions said he has encouraged Toomey to play an active role. 

There’s uncertainty as to whether Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) will put together a Senate Democratic budget proposal. Conrad said he is circulating several drafts but will wait in order to give the Gang of Six more time to reach a compromise on a long-term deficit reduction plan.