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Congress opens first budget debate in four years

Congress this week takes up the parties' sharply different views on taxes and spending. Just laying down political markers on next year's budget could help advance a 'grand bargain' on deficits and entitlements, some say.

By Staff writer / March 11, 2013

Senate Democratic leaders finish a news conference on Capitol Hill responding to questions on Washington's tax and spending impasse last month. From right to left are Senate majority whip Richard Durbin of Illinois, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada, and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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Washington

When Senate Democrats and House Republicans unveil their budget proposals for the 2014 fiscal year this week, Washington’s next round of wide-ranging fiscal negotiations will start with a partisan roar.

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After a week of bipartisan consultations, House and Senate spending committees are on track to reach a compromise bill on funding the government past March 27, when a stopgap funding measure runs out. But the next Capitol Hill debate – over competing blueprints for spending for fiscal year 2014, which begins in October – is expected to run at least until Easter and won’t have any of the bipartisan comity of the talks to keep government funded through the end of the current fiscal year.

Still, the debate over the FY 2014 budget could play a role in helping to break Washington's longer-term fiscal impasse.

The budget resolution is nonbinding, because it is the appropriations committees that actually set final funding levels. But the resolution requires both parties to take tough votes on tax and spending targets for government, as well as make estimates of their future consequences for federal deficits and debt.

Through it all, lawmakers and President Obama will be feeling out the contours of the long-elusive grand bargain that could wrap in changes to entitlement programs, revamp the nation’s tax code, and chart a fiscal path for the next decade and beyond.

First, it’s significant that both chambers will likely pass budget resolutions, for the first time since 2009. Senate Democrats, steered by the politically deft hand of Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D) of Washington, who, as conference secretary, is also No. 4 in Senate Democratic leadership, this week will move their first budget resolution in nearly four years.

House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, meanwhile, will take his third bite at what he and GOP colleagues see as an urgent need to head off an impending debt crisis, this time with a new twist – while Chairman Ryan’s last, controversial budget came into balance in nearly three decades, his latest version will equalize spending and revenues in 10 years.

Democrats, led by Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the ranking member of the Budget Committee, are expected to savage Ryan for inflicting deep cuts on average Americans while being unwilling to reduce the deficit by closing tax loopholes that mainly benefit the wealthy. They’ll likely inveigh against the hypocrisy of pocketing a raft of budget-balancing help from the president’s health-care law and high-income tax increases that Ryan decried exuberantly while he was the party’s vice presidential nominee in the fall. (Ryan later voted for the "fiscal cliff" compromise that led to higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans.)

Over the weekend, Ryan told Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday" that the House budget would also again call for repealing Mr. Obama's health-care reform law.

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