Senate begins weeklong budget debate

Senate debate began Monday on the fiscal 2005 budget resolution with an eye toward finishing the permitted 50 hours of debate by the end of the week.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said the Senate would be meeting late all this week to finish before it adjourns Friday for a weeklong recess.

"My hope is to yield back some of those 50 hours" in the hope of wrapping up earlier than expected Friday, Frist said, and avoid a "vote-o-rama" where senators can demand votes on amendments even after the 50 hours has expired. Budget ranking member Kent Conrad, D-N.D., this afternoon echoed the desire to see more amendments considered earlier in the week to avoid a crush at the end.

"That would be a good thing for the Senate, be a good thing for the disposition of these amendments, and a better way to reach conclusion," Conrad said. As drafted by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Don Nickles, R-Okla., and amended in committee last week, the resolution calls for $814 billion in new fiscal 2005 discretionary spending, a 3.3 percent increase over 2004, and $144 billion in tax cuts, of which $80.6 billion would be protected from a filibuster later this year through reconciliation instructions.

Amendments are expected to increase spending for defense, homeland security and domestic programs, and to reduce or eliminate the tax reconciliation package.

Later this week, the votes of GOP moderates will be crucial to passage. Some moderates are wary of the tax proposals, although a spokeswoman for Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio -- one of last year's tax-cut holdouts -- said he was leaning toward supporting the resolution since "Ohio's economic recovery isn't as robust as the rest of the nation's."

Other key votes include Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Lincoln Chafee, R-Rhode Island, who are involved in talks about extending pay/go requirements to tax cut proposals.

A Senate GOP aide said moderates might rally around a potential amendment by Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., to require tax cuts and new spending to be offset. That proposal failed on a party-line vote last week in committee. The aide also noted that conservative Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has previously supported pay/go requirements for tax legislation, although he could not be reached Monday afternoon.

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