Democrats strategize over fiscal 2004 budget blueprint

Democrats are plotting their strategy to craft an alternative to the White House's fiscal 2004 budget, looking for a way to further their policy agenda while still claiming the political high ground on the need to balance the budget and lower the deficit.

Early meetings among Democratic staff and senior lawmakers have yet to produce a consensus on how to accommodate calls for increased spending and an expansive prescription-drug benefit under Medicare while maintaining fiscal discipline. But sources said most Democrats are eager to support a sound budget document since last year's failure to produce an alternative plan resulted in a yearlong political whipping by Republicans.

In recent discussions, sources said some Democrats suggested avoiding the parameters of an overall budget plan and instead challenging Republicans one issue at time. Such a "piecemeal approach" would let Democrats propose as much spending as they think is necessary without having to make trade-offs.

But senior lawmakers such as House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Budget Committee ranking Democrat John Spratt of South Carolina questioned the suggestion.

Members of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition said Democrats must be willing to make trade-offs to craft a cohesive message for next year's elections. "We won't get traction or credibility unless we put together a budget resolution," a Blue Dog source said. As Democrats work to craft an official party response, members of the coalition plan to craft their own alternative.

While many of group's 34 members routinely side with Republicans on budget and tax policy, this year, the group opposes the president's budget plan. It recently voted to formally oppose President Bush's $670 billion economic stimulus plan, saying that the administration's call for more tax cuts will not stimulate the economy but will increase deficits.

The economy needs an immediate boost, but "the administration's economic plan would all but ignore those problems and dig our economy and our budget further into a ditch," said Rep. Jim Matheson of Utah, co-chairman of the Blue Dog Budget Task Force.

While the Blue Dog budget plan is not yet written, it is expected to call for a new round of discretionary spending caps, as well as the re-enactment of various budget-enforcement tools, including the use of pay-as-you-go rules to curb tax cuts and mandatory spending increases.

The coalition also said the president's homeland security budget is inadequate to meet the needs of state and local governments. Despite their differences with the GOP, Rep. Charles Stenholm of Texas, a leader of the Blue Dogs, still hopes Republicans will embrace many Blue Dog ideals when crafting their budget resolution.

"But if the majority is going to move ahead with tax cuts [that are not paid for], that's going to be a major sticking point with the Blue Dogs," he said.