Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., will propose additional revenue beyond the fiscal-cliff deal.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., will propose additional revenue beyond the fiscal-cliff deal. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Why the Senate Democrats' Budget Will Be Vague

The fewer specifics they offer, the less political ammunition there will be for the GOP.

The GOP has long hoped that by prodding the Senate majority to produce a budget, it could force Democrats to commit to paper some unpopular political choices on spending cuts and health care programs. But if Republicans want specifics this spring, they’ll have to wait. The Senate Democrats’ budget, scheduled for release this week, is expected to offer only broad outlines of many of the party’s usual talking points, leaving the Republicans with little new political ammunition in the ongoing fiscal war.

The new Senate Budget Committee chairwoman, Patty Murray, will propose additional revenue beyond the fiscal-cliff deal, as well as more spending on education, transportation infrastructure, and job training, according to aides and Democratic members familiar with the discussions. Her budget will seek to undo nine years of sequestration, starting next fiscal year, through policy ideas that Democrats have already proposed: closing tax loopholes, for example, and saving money from the troop drawdown in Afghanistan. And it will offer targets for revenue and spending that the federal government should hit over the next 10 years—along with possible instructions for tax reform.

What the proposal is unlikely to do is lay out a detailed blueprint for cutting the federal health entitlement programs that drive the country’s long-term deficit. “Our budget is going to reflect the need to deal with our long-term health care costs without impacting our beneficiaries in a way that puts us in a place where people can’t sustain their own budgets at home,” Murray tells NationalJournal. Two recent budget memos, circulated to Senate Democrats, emphasized the need for revenue and barely mentioned the health programs.

Budget discussions among Senate Democrats are ongoing, and it’s unclear if they’ll go as far as the president did in proposing entitlement savings. As part of a deficit-reduction deal, the White House has said it would be willing to wring $400 billion from Medicare and Medicaid, primarily through cuts in Medicare payments to doctors and hospitals. President Obama is also willing to change the way the federal government calculates certain government benefits, an adjustment to the cost-of-living calculation known as chained CPI, a change that that could also bring in more revenue. In the past, Murray and Majority Leader Harry Reid have considered that verboten.

Even behind closed doors on the deficit-reduction super committee, on which Murray was a cochairman, she was not known as a vocal supporter of significant entitlement changes. Murray and the other Democrats talked about cuts at the margins or the need for greater efficiency within the medical system, says former Sen. Jon Kyl, a GOP member of the 12-person committee. “As a general proposition, the Republicans were disappointed that the Democrats did not put real reforms on the table,” he says.

The vagueness likely to characterize the Senate Democrats’ proposal partly stems from the nature of congressional budget documents, which tend to be more political statements than policy prescriptions. That’s true for both parties. Politicians can propose to cut spending by a certain percentage in a budget without wading too much into the programs, personnel, or agencies that would have to be cut to meet that target. “Primarily, the job of the Budget Committee is to establish a framework and leave it to the committees of jurisdiction to fill in the gaps. We’re supposed to provide a skeleton, and they’re supposed to put the meat on the bones,” says Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the ranking member of the House Budget Committee and a close ally of the White House in fiscal matters.

But the nature of budget resolutions isn’t the only thing shaping this particular proposal. It’s also the nature of the politics and the opposition. The Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee, Rep. Paul Ryan, holds a reputation as a policy wonk, whereas Murray is known more as a political animal. “She’s a pretty good arbiter and proxy for the caucus as a whole,” says Rich Tarplin, a lobbyist close to Senate Democrats. “Her own personal views pretty well represent the balance between the progressives and the moderates.”

Ryan’s draft budget proposal is already freaking out moderates in the GOP caucus, whereas Murray’s goal is to craft something that can attract broad support within the Senate Democratic Conference—from liberal members on her own committee, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to the handful of centrist members facing tough reelection battles in 2014. So, by political necessity, her budget is designed to be vague.

It’s the only way Murray can rally her Senate colleagues and prove her worth as a good soldier for the leadership. A budget that alienates Democrats on her committee and fails to get a floor vote would be a political disaster. “This is the next best step at replacing the sequester and getting revenue, despite the gridlock,” a Senate Democratic leadership aide says. “We’re not going to negotiate everything away in the first round.”

It’s also a chance for Senate Democrats to show they can produce and pass a budget—a feat not accomplished since 2009 and a favorite jab of House Republicans. In this round of the fiscal wars on Capitol Hill, the bar is pretty low.