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Why, after all these years, the Senate is working on a budget (+VIDEO)

Senate Democrats didn't pass a budget resolution for the previous three years, but they are taking steps to do it this year. Three things, in particular, have changed.

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With congressional approval ratings at record lows, many senators say that punting on an open, transparent budget process is no longer politically defensible.

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“We’re now at the point where sequestration is in effect,” says Sen. Ben Cardin (D) of Maryland. “If we can get a broader budget understanding, then we can deal with things to replace sequestration.”

It’s a view of the process that’s shared across party lines. Estimates by the Congressional Budget Office that spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is on track to nearly double over the next decade set off alarms on Capitol Hill. Moreover, the domestic budget cuts targeted by sequestration signal even deeper cuts to come.

“The stars are beginning to align on what needs to be done. There’s a growing realization that we have to address these numbers, and that reality is sinking in,” says Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio, a member of the Senate Budget Committee.

“Allowing the democratic process to work will be helpful in getting to a solution,” he adds, even though the budget resolutions produced by the Democrat-controlled Senate and the GOP-controlled House are far apart.

“There will be very big differences [in the House and Senate budget resolutions]. The debate will appear partisan to some,” he adds. "But letting our constituents know where we stand will make it easier for both sides to come together and find a solution to a problem that everyone acknowledges.”

No. 3: No elections

Senate Democrats say that the reason that the majority leader blocked floor votes on a budget resolution for fiscal years 2012 and 2013 was because the Budget Control Act, which resolved the debt-limit crisis in 2011, set caps for spending for those years, so a budget resolution was not needed.

“We had two years of the Budget Control Act,” says Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) of Michigan, a member of the budget panel. “We did it in a different way the last two years, but we did it.”

However, Senator Reid also blocked then-Budget chairman Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota from taking a budget resolution passed by his panel to the floor in 2010 for FY 2011. With close midterm elections, Reid didn’t want to expose vulnerable Democrats to the unlimited amendments and recorded votes on tough issues for Democrats in conservative states that the budget process allows.

But President Obama will not be running for election again, and senators won’t face voters until at least 2014. At a private meeting with the Senate Democratic caucus on Tuesday, the president urged Democrats to go forward with a budget resolution.

“The message from the White House was: ‘We’ve got to get [a budget resolution] done, and it’s got to be balanced and responsible, and we need to focus on economic growth,’ ” said Senator Stabenow.

“The campaign is over,” says Senator Portman. “I think the president realizes that for the good of the country and for his legacy we have to deal with these issues; otherwise, we will have added more debt in his eight years probably than the previous presidents in the history of our great country combined. And that’s not a legacy that I think he or any of us want.”

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