Sen. Conrad backs off plan to vote on budget

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) bowed to pressure from fellow Democrats on Tuesday and postponed a committee vote on a 2013 budget resolution, most likely until after the November elections.

Conrad on Wednesday will begin a committee markup of a resolution based on the Bowles-Simpson deficit recommendations, but told reporters there is no date scheduled on which the markup vote would occur. 

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“This is the wrong time to vote in committee; this is the wrong time to vote on the floor,” he said. “I don’t think we will be prepared to vote before the election.”

He said the decision would disappoint some Democrats who craved a budget plan to rally around and some Republicans who longed for a plan to attack.

Indeed, the decision was denounced immediately by the GOP, which has lambasted Senate Democrats for months for failing to consider a standalone budget resolution for the last two years.

Ranking member Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said that Conrad’s about-face had taken him completely off guard Tuesday afternoon. He said he learned of the decision as he was preparing budget amendments to offer on Wednesday.

“I believe Conrad was prepared to go forward … I was very, very surprised,” Sessions said. “It is very clear that members of his committee and the entire Democratic Conference and the leader did not want his members to cast votes.”

Sessions said that Conrad is failing to live up to a pledge he made to Sessions during last summer’s debt-ceiling talks to hold a markup in committee on a budget.

“That is not a markup … certainly until it’s been completed it’s not a markup,” he said.

Sessions and GOP members were prepared to stage amendment votes on repealing President Obama's healthcare reform law, on the spending scandal involving lavish parties by the General Services Administration and on lowering overall spending limits.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Conrad will present a version of the bipartisan recommendations of President Obama’s 2010 fiscal commission for committee discussion and opening remarks. The panel will then consider that report privately until a date uncertain.

“I absolutely recognize that adjustments will have to be made for this plan to be adopted,” Conrad told reporters. “I would be open to reaching conclusion as soon as possible. It is unlikely that we will reach agreement until after the election.”

Conrad had tried for weeks to come up with a Democratic budget but then switched to offering the Bowles-Simpson fiscal commission report.

Conrad said he made the more recent decision to postpone votes after polling committee Democrats and seeing another version of the fiscal commission report, which was authored by former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), go down to defeat in a House vote last month.

The Bowles-Simpson amendment to the House GOP budget got only 38 votes on the floor.

Among committee Democrats, Bowles-Simpson has some support, but not enough to pass the committee.

The commission report calls for reforms to Social Security, which include raising the retirement age. This makes it problematic for some Democrats. Staunch opponent of Social Security cuts Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) declined to comment on the Conrad plan Tuesday.

The Conrad plan also includes new net revenue from tax reform. The tax reform would limit popular tax deductions such as for employer-sponsored healthcare, mortgage interest and charity.

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) is known to be protective of oil and gas tax preferences, while Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has favored more wide-reaching Medicare reforms closer to those in the House-passed budget.

Sessions said that the Conrad version includes $2.6 trillion in new net taxes.

“Even if they favor more taxes, they don’t want to be seen voting for it,” Sessions said of committee Democrats.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had already stated that a budget resolution would not be given a floor vote even if the committee could come to some agreement. 

He has argued that the August debt-ceiling deal technically provides a discretionary spending budget for 2013, thereby satisfying legal requirements to consider a budget.

Conrad reiterated that point on Tuesday, but said he wanted to provide a framework to start discussions on a long-term budget plan, possibly for use in a lame-duck session when Bush-era tax rates are set to expire.

A Democratic aide said that Reid and Conrad had consulted closely on how to move forward with the markup.

“This is not Conrad going off the reservation,” the aide made clear.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who consulted with Conrad in recent days, said that he understood Conrad’s attempt to take the temperature of his committee but said the Senate is not ready to come together on a bipartisan plan yet.

“I understand what Kent is doing. He is taking a measure of the committee to see if there is a bipartisan or majority opinion on what to do to move forward,” Durbin said. “I doubt that this is possible at the moment. It is a possibility closer to the end of the year, as we get closer to the fiscal cliff.”