By Erik Wasson - 05/20/11 12:33 AM EDT
Democrats will wait to present a 2012 budget until deficit talks led by Vice President Biden have concluded, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said Thursday.
Democrats are getting hammered by the GOP for failing to agree within their own caucus on a budget alternative to the House-passed Republican plan.
“Democrats on the Budget Committee are very close to an agreement. We will have a budget. But, after broad consultation, we have decided to defer a budget markup because of the high-level bipartisan leadership negotiations that are currently under way,” Conrad said.
“The results of those negotiations may need to be included in a budget resolution that would be offered in the weeks ahead. That was the case for both the 1990 and 1997 deficit-reduction plans, where a budget resolution and accompanying reconciliation process were used to implement the agreements,” he said.
Delaying a budget resolution will push the Senate appropriations process closer to the end of the fiscal year in September. The Biden talks could drag on until late July, just before the final deadline — Aug. 2 — for raising the debt ceiling.
Committee ranking member Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) was scathing in his criticism.
“It seems Senate Democrats are desperately trying to avoid having to present a budget to the American people. They know that the big spenders in their caucus prevent them from bringing forward a credible plan that both their party and the country can support,” he said.
“First, Senate Democrats offered the excuse that they were waiting for the ‘Gang of Six,’ ” Sessions continued. “Now we are told they are waiting on the Biden talks. But there is no reason to believe the Biden talks will be more successful than the Gang of Six. What if they don’t reach a deal — or what if that deal proves insufficient? Today’s announcement is just another excuse for delay — delay with no end in sight.”
Conrad told The Hill in an interview that his action was strategic and he is focused on what will be the most likely move to produce a bipartisan budget agreement.
He said that a series of partisan Senate votes on a Democratic budget resolution at this point would “harden” the positions on both sides and could “poison the well” for an agreement in the Biden talks.
Asked whether next week’s votes on Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget and Obama’s 2012 budget would poison the well, he said that the decision to hold those had been made “above my pay grade.” He added that the Ryan vote will be up or down and not a “vote-o-rama” as would be likely on a budget resolution.
Conrad said he had floated a draft budget resolution to keep the option open.
“I have tried to keep as many ponies on the track..I am not smart enough to know beforehand which one will produce an agreement,” he said. He noted his involvement in the fiscal commission and Gang of Six.
He reiterated that Democrats could come to an agreement on a resolution, but that is not where the action is — it is in the Biden group with the White House at the table.
“We are close to an agreement, but what good would it do?” he said.
Conrad said that Sessions’s statement was partisan rhetoric that will not help solve the debt problem.
“What is their plan to produce a bipartisan agreement, to actually get something done?” he asked. “Their leaders have agreed to negotiate with Vice President Biden. Do they have no confidence in their leadership?”
Conrad said that the spending ceilings for 2012 could likely come in the form of a separate statute formed by a Biden-talks agreement.
Earlier in the day, Conrad said that Senate Democrats would produce a budget resolution — eventually.
“There will be a budget,” he said. “The question is the timing, and the question is, how do we maximize the chance to get done what has to be done in the interest of the country?”
Conrad explained that major bipartisan deficit pacts have used the budget resolution process and budget reconciliation before. Under budget reconciliation rules, only a majority of senators is needed to pass legislation, rather than the usual 60 necessary to avoid a filibuster.
Conrad had drafted a budget resolution achieving $4 trillion in deficit cuts over 10 years, a more ambitious cut than President Obama has endorsed. After shopping it to fellow Democrats, Conrad included more tax increases to appease party liberals. This move worried vulnerable centrists.
For Conrad, the real action was in the bipartisan Gang of Six talks, and he delayed work on a Democrat budget resolution to give those negotiations some space. The talks ran into an impasse this week when Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) pulled out.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) at that point stepped in and warned the caucus that signing onto the draft could affect the Biden talks.
Conrad spoke after a 40-minute meeting of Senate Budget Committee Democrats. While some sources said the meeting made progress, it did not appear that disagreements over taxes had been resolved.
Budget Committee members Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said there had been real progress at the Thursday meeting. Cardin said he thought that the Democrats on the committee were close to finding an agreement.
But Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has been holding out for a 50-50 split of spending cuts to revenue increases and a millionaire’s surtax, angrily refused to answer questions after the meeting.
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who is not on the committee but is facing a tough reelection fight, said he told Conrad on the Senate floor Thursday that he will not sign onto a draft that raises taxes.
“We need to cut spending first,” Nelson said.
Senate Republicans drew attention all day Thursday to the fact that Democrats have not passed a budget resolution in the Senate in 750 days.
—This story was initially posted at 1 p.m., and updated at 4:29 p.m., 5:28 p.m., 5:50 p.m. and 8:33 p.m.