Incoming Senate chair says 2004 budget resolution is top priority

Incoming Senate Budget Chairman Don Nickles, R-Okla., did not give away any secret war plans about his strategy for next year, but told reporters Tuesday that his No. 1 priority would be to deliver a fiscal 2004 budget resolution that could pass the Senate, unlike this year, when election-year politics strangled attempts to approve budget guidelines.

"It's not easy, especially when things are so closely divided," said Nickles. "But it's important to pass a budget resolution. If we don't, we're going to find ourselves in the same quagmire as this Congress."

Nickles declined to give away many details about his thinking on a budget resolution, noting that committee membership has yet to be nailed down and saying he wants to consult with various members of both political parties before moving ahead.

He said, however, that he would consider extending certain budget disciplines, and he hinted that the resolution would likely call for the passage of some sort of stimulus package.

He also said he would examine a permanent extension of the Bush tax cut, although he acknowledged that budget rules would make that difficult under reconciliation, the process by which Congress passes tax and entitlement provisions to comply with the assumptions of the budget resolution.

While tax cuts-or prescription drug benefits-would be easier to pass under reconciliation because they would only require 50 votes, a permanent extension of the Bush tax cut would likely require 60 votes because of other Senate rules.

Nickles said he may simply try to move the date at which the Bush tax cut would sunset, in effect extending it a few years, or call for any number of tax cuts "inside and outside" of reconciliation.

Nickles declined to comment on who he would like to see take over when current Congressional Budget Office Director Crippen steps down in January.

A hardline fiscal conservative, Nickles is expected to take a more stringent position on spending matters than Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., a former Budget chairman who gave up a chance to return to the chairmanship in order to head the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Nickles mentioned Tuesday that he is considering passing a fiscal 2003 budget resolution, or something like one, in January to cap the amount of money that can be pumped into the catch-all omnibus bill designed to wrap up 11 of the 13 appropriations bills left unfinished by this Congress, but that nothing is decided on yet.