House Democrats unlikely to offer their own budget plan

As next Wednesday's House floor debate on the fiscal 2003 budget approaches, Democrats appear to have decided to train their fire on the Republican-sponsored budget rather than offer alternatives of their own.

Although they have yet to make the final call, both Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., and a Blue Dog Coalition leader, Rep. Jim Turner, D-Texas, indicated Thursday that neither the fiscally conservative Blue Dogs nor the party leadership is likely to present a full-blown budget plan.

However, an aide to the Blue Dogs' leading budget expert--Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas--said Stenholm and other moderate Democrats may draft a budget to put on the floor.

Gephardt said the party is united in its critique of Republicans' $2.1 trillion budget, which would run an on-budget, or non-Social Security, deficit of $224 billion next year, and $830 billion over five years.

"We think the Republican budget in the House is a failure, an absolute and total failure in dealing with the big problems that America faces," Gephardt said in renewing his call for a budget summit with the White House rather than repeat the annual exercise of offering alternative budgets that will lose on the House floor.

A senior House Democratic aide added: "We're in a straitjacket. The decisions were really made last year, and are still being played out this year and for years to come. This is pretty much a continuation budget" that Republicans have crafted in the wake of last year's $1.35 trillion tax cut.

The aide even quoted former Speaker Gingrich, who in May 1990--while serving as GOP whip--said it is not the responsibility of the minority party to offer a budget plan.

Turner, a Blue Dog co-chairman, said his group is unlikely to offer an alternative either, opting instead to lend its voice to Democratic opposition to the GOP budget.

"It's a question of trying to unify the Democratic Caucus around an issue that represents the linchpin of fiscal discipline. And that linchpin is Social Security," he said. Turner reiterated the importance of having "the Democratic Caucus speak with one voice."

An aide to Stenholm said the Blue Dog leader is still interested in offering a budget and is talking with moderate Democrats about it. The aide said Democrats have much less flexibility than they did last year in trying to write a fiscally responsible budget that maintains Democratic priorities without touching the Social Security surplus or using more optimistic OMB numbers.

"The options are much more limited" this year, the aide said. "Last year Republicans locked in all of their priorities with their budget."

For its part, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which presented its own substitute last year, plans to offer an amendment to the GOP's budget that would freeze $300 billion of last year's tax cut and spend it on a prescription drug plan authored by Rep. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., while also calling on the drug industry to voluntarily cut drug prices for further savings.

According to a spokeswoman for Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, chairman of the Progressive Caucus, the "prescription for America" amendment would freeze implementation of the tax cut for the top 1 percent of income earners.

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