Democrats poised to move measures with high price tags

Congress faces a crush of votes on big-ticket items before the Memorial Day recess, setting up a debate on deficits less than six months before the November elections.

Democratic leaders are looking in the next three weeks to send President Barack Obama a slew of measures that cost more than $200 billion, including a multiyear extension of unemployment benefits, an extension of expiring tax provisions and Medicare doctor payments totaling $180 billion and a $33 billion Afghanistan war supplemental bill.

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Because most of those costs won’t be paid for, Republicans plan to use those bills and the Democrats’ budget blueprint to highlight massive deficits ahead of the congressional midterm election. Republicans have recently been pointing to Greece’s dismal fiscal situation as a warning, claiming that the U.S. will be headed for a similar fate unless the deficits are curtailed.

“Washington Democrats’ out-of-control spending spree is scaring the hell out of the American people,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). “It has to stop.”

The unemployment benefits program, which provides someone with up to 99 weeks of jobless benefits, has received two monthlong extensions in the past two months. It is unclear how much the next extension designed to last for the rest of this year will cost, but the price tag is expected to be in the tens of billions.

The George W. Bush administration and GOP leaders in Congress backed a similar jobless aid program in 2002, when the country was coming out of the last recession.

Both Republican- and Democrat-led Congresses approved past extensions of Medicare doctor payments or the “doc fix” instead of letting them lapse. And both parties have backed Iraq and Afghanistan war spending bills that haven’t been offset.

Democratic leaders plan to move quickly on those issues because the jobless insurance program and Medicare doctor payment rate expire in early June, and because Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said the war funding bill must be completed this month, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said last week.

But Democratic leaders’ task of finding the needed votes for those measures is more difficult because of the looming midterm elections. House Democratic leaders, for example, have not yet decided whether to move a budget blueprint, knowing that such a vote will be used as political ammunition against vulnerable members this fall.

GOP members are banking on deficits being one of the biggest issues in November. This year’s budget shortfall is expected to be $1.5 trillion, and deficits are expected to average $1 trillion over the next decade, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates of Obama’s budget proposal.

Those numbers may be lower in the short term as the economy strengthens and in the long term if Congress enacts more austere policies.

Democrats have responded by blaming the large deficits on Republicans, who did not offset their bills on tax cuts, the wars and their Medicare prescription drug benefit, among other priorities.

“As much as [Republicans] would like you to forget, they passed an agenda that benefited big corporate special interests and the wealthy at the expense of middle-class families and then turned around and left our grandkids with the bill,” said Doug Thornell, a spokesman for Assistant to the Speaker Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). “Democrats inherited an economic disaster from a party who had about as much fiscal responsibility as MC Hammer. We have taken responsible steps to clean up their mess. It’d be nice if Republicans reined in their political ambitions, grabbed a mop and joined us.”

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Democrats, since taking over Congress in 2007 and the White House last year, have enacted a pay-as-you-go law requiring them to offset their major priorities and pushed through an overhaul of the country’s healthcare system that should reduce deficits, Democratic leadership aides noted.

Republicans have pointed out that the pay-go law allows for many exceptions, including allocations for “emergency spending.”

The bill extending a number of expiring policies, which is still being crafted, will cost about $180 billion and is likely to include a number of programs aimed at creating jobs, sources close to the matter told The Hill. Democrats have discussed a tax credit for companies investing in research and development and increased loans for small businesses and bonds for state and local government public-works projects.

“After bringing our nation into war and our economy to the brink of collapse, Republicans now do not want to pay for their poor decisions,” said Regan LaChapelle, a spokeswoman for Reid. “Democrats are committed to supporting our troops while they are abroad, while working to safely bring them home. And we will continue to support out-of-work Americans by creating jobs and providing the assistance that they need to pay their bills.”

Congress will have to rush to get the extension and war spending bills out. The Senate debate on the financial regulatory reform bill is expected to go through this week.

Republican senators, first led by Sen. Jim Bunning (Ky.) and subsequently by Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), have held up the Democrats’ past attempts to hold quick votes on extending the unemployment benefits and other expiring tax provisions.

Coburn, who has noted that Democrats approved $173 billion in deficit spending since the pay-go law was signed by Obama in March, has said he would also oppose any of the coming measures, including the war supplemental, that aren’t paid for.

“Dr. Coburn will use every tool at his disposal to force Congress to pay for these provisions,” said Coburn spokesman John Hart. “Our country is headed toward a Greek-like collapse because Congress refuses to make hard choices.”


Jay Heflin contributed to this article.