Senate pushes to avert budget 'chaos'

With the Memorial Day recess less than a month away and the Senate's marathon energy debate finally wrapped up, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., now confronts what may be one of his toughest decisions as floor leader: whether, and under what conditions, to bring up the chamber's fiscal 2003 budget resolution for debate.

Republicans have been hammering Daschle and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., for not yet scheduling a debate, pointing out that since enactment of the landmark Budget Act of 1974, the Senate has never failed to pass a budget.

After shepherding their budget through a 50-50 Senate last year as Daschle, Conrad and other Democratic leaders denounced its $1.35 trillion tax cut, Republicans now are pressuring their counterparts to put up or shut up with their own plan.

Yet Daschle is in a nearly impossible situation, because the budget reported out of Conrad's committee last month lacks the votes to pass the Senate. Satisfying holdout budget hawks, such as Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., risks alienating powerful Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.

Daschle has promised repeatedly in recent weeks that a budget debate will take place before the Memorial Day recess, while simultaneously conceding that he lacks the votes to pass a budget.

The "prevailing wisdom," according to a Senate Democratic source, is that rather than trying to pass a full-blown budget resolution, the Senate instead should adopt what is known as a "deeming resolution."

Basically, a deeming resolution would carry weight similar to a budget resolution by setting an overall 2003 spending figure for the Appropriations Committee. It also would specify typical enforcement procedures, such as the 60-vote point of order against any spending bill that exceeds its allocation.

The deeming resolution likely would set the discretionary spending level at $769 billion in budget authority, as put forward in Conrad's budget resolution. However, appropriators might seek to increase that number to make their jobs easier down the line.

"We have a good sense of where people want to end up. The question is how we get there," said a Senate Democratic source.

But unlike a budget resolution, which enjoys special protections on the Senate floor, a deeming resolution is "fully debatable and fully amendable," a Senate GOP source stressed--meaning Democrats would need to get unanimous consent to bring one up.

To get unanimous consent, Democrats by definition would need Republican support, effectively empowering Republicans to negotiate the terms of a "deemer."

Despite the conventional wisdom, a Senate leadership source said the chamber will vote on a budget resolution, although the source predicted it would be a "floor-built" resolution that will be the product of significant negotiation.

The source also said the budget will not even go to the floor until after Congress passes the fiscal 2002 supplemental, so the 2003 outlay effects of the package can be factored into the mix.

Another Senate GOP source said Republicans such as Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, are focusing on ensuring some measure of discipline. At the very least, Gramm would seek to renew the 60-vote points of order that would expire at the end of the current fiscal year in the absence of a 2003 budget resolution.

"The main thing I want is enforcement mechanisms," Gramm said last week. "I want to have some disciplining agent--it would be absolute chaos without [60-vote] points of order."

Although Gramm dismisses the idea that the Senate could pass a budget resolution, he says, "I think we may be able to get a bipartisan agreement on a one-year extension" of the points of order.

The budget caps and "pay as you go" rule also could be extended--at least for the purposes of Senate rules--for another year, according to the GOP source. The source added that Republicans could try to introduce new enforcement tools or budgetary disciplines.

But until Democrats decide how to proceed, the GOP source said Republicans do not have to finalize their strategy. "It's like chess," the source said. "Your opponent makes the opening move, then you respond."

When the Senate will decide to proceed is another question. Unlike the House, where the Appropriations Committee is allowed by law to move forward with its work without a budget resolution starting May 15, there is no deadline in the Senate.

Lacking either a budget resolution or a deemer, the Senate Appropriations Committee still could begin work on its spending bills. However, under that scenario, every 2003 appropriations bill would face a 50-vote point of order for violating the Budget Act provision prohibiting Senate consideration of appropriations bills in the absence of a budget resolution.

Byrd could give his subcommittee chairmen "informal marching orders" to proceed. But without any sort of enforcement procedure and the benefit of a point of order on the Senate floor, the appropriations process could turn ugly.

Sources noted that appropriators no longer could tell members, "I'd love to do more but I can't," because it would take only a majority vote to increase a bill's spending allocation.

Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said he could foresee his bill being loaded down with politically popular amendments that would throw any modicum of fiscal restraint out the window.

"People are not going to vote against labor, education, health care," said Specter. "These items are going to be passed."

Specter said many amendments over the past several years to increase programs in the bill have garnered votes in the upper 50s. Without the 60-vote threshold, they would certainly pass, and the bill's dollar figure would inflate drastically.

"It would be chaos," said Specter.

But if the past is any guide, Byrd will wait for budget protections.

In 1990, when Congress did not adopt a final budget resolution until Oct. 9, Byrd--who was Appropriations chairman then as well--did not move his first appropriations bill of the year in subcommittee until July 18. That was the day after the Senate passed a deeming resolution formally giving his committee a number.