Senate talks on budget target hit snag

A deal on a so-called budget "deeming resolution," which would set a fiscal 2003 discretionary total of $768 billion and extend budget enforcement mechanisms, hit a snag in the Senate after Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., objected last week to the spending total, sources said.

And a deal is unlikely to emerge until the end of this month, when the enforcement mechanisms are set to expire and congressional leaders are forced to make up their minds on several budget-related fronts.

"It is only ripe at the last minute," said a Senate Democratic aide. "Nothing focuses the mind of Congress more than a deadline."

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said last week he and ranking member Pete Domenici, R-N.M., had presented the outline of a Senate deeming resolution to their respective leaders. While sources said Daschle agreed to it, Lott objected to the overall spending figure, which the White House and many GOP conservatives oppose for being too high.

Lott believed that agreeing to the $768 billion figure could hurt House Republican leaders, who are pushing for a less-expensive $759 billion total. They are having problems moving the 2003 Labor-HHS appropriations bill because Democrats and moderate Republicans say it is short on funds.

"We didn't want to step in the middle of the food fight," said a high-ranking Senate GOP source. "We want to stick by the president and the House."

In addition, the source said, Senate appropriators have already used the $768 billion figure in writing the 2003 appropriations bills, and so extending budget points of order against that spending total benefits only Democrats, not Republicans.

"[Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert] Byrd [D-M.Va.] needs that to control bills on the floor," said the source. "There's no need on our side to do that."

Conrad scoffed at Lott's objections, pointing out that the House's difficulties over the Labor-HHS spending bill highlight that approving the $768 billion figure is the only way Congress can finish its business in a timely fashion.

"It's a disappointment," said Conrad, who before the August recess said he had cleared the 60-vote threshold needed to pass the deeming resolution.

Despite the hiccup, it is still likely that some type of resolution will emerge before budget enforcement procedures expire at the end of the month. Democratic and GOP sources said both sides are interested in extending PAYGO rules, which force a 60-vote point of order against any new tax cut or mandatory spending proposal that is not revenue-neutral.

Without such rules, it would take only 51 votes to pass new tax cuts or a prescription drug benefit.

Lott, in fact, offered to move such a bill now, but Conrad objected because he wanted the $768 billion figure included. Conrad and Senate GOP sources predicted that the deeming resolution might get tied into negotiations over a continuing resolution at the end of the month.