Under the best of circumstances, the budget process is no jaunt in the country. This year, it is the political equivalent of a dash through west Beirut. ``Oh, to be in England now that April's here,'' jests Senate majority leader Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, who is trying to get a federal spending plan for fiscal year 1988 out of the Senate this week. Consider:
The Senate is spending the week debating five separate budget plans, none likely to pass in its present form.
An $11.3 billion supplemental spending bill for fiscal 1987, passed last week by the House of Representatives, threatens to exceed congressional spending limits and contains two arms control provisions that are the objects of President Reagan's unrestrained ire. The bill is so loaded, observes Senate minority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, that it will attract ``extended debate'' among senators.
In mid-May, lawmakers will tackle a bill to raise the limit on the amount of money the federal government can borrow. No real controversy there, except that the debt-ceiling bill is likely to be the vehicle for competing efforts by Democrats and Republicans to rewrite the Gramm-Rudman Budget Balancing Act.
To be confronted is the issue of raising taxes - the political ground zero of this year's budget debate. New taxes (but not income taxes) are called for in the budget passed by the House and in the bill submitted by the Senate Budget Committee. But President Reagan remains adamantly opposed to new taxes. A tax increase, says White House budget director James Miller III, ``just ain't going to happen''.
For the rest of the week, at least, the spotlight will be on the Senate, where members are debating a $1.2 trillion budget offered by the Senate Budget Committee that would raise $11.5 billion in new taxes. Democratic leaders hope to pass a budget resolution by Friday and quickly enter into budget negotiations with the House, whose budget resolution calls for $18 billion in new taxes.
Meanwhile, key Democrats such as Senate Budget Committee chairman Lawton Chiles of Florida are unsure they have the votes to pass the committee plan and are trying to work out a compromise with Republicans. But they are having problems building support within their own ranks for a budget plan that cuts military and domestic spending while raising taxes. With only an eight-seat majority, Senate Democrats need every vote they can get. Virtually every Democrat has a complaint about the plan, passed out of the budget committee on a party-line vote shortly before Congress's week-long Easter recess.
Support for the committee plan is more difficult to find on the other side of the aisle. Many Republicans object to tax increases and seek deeper cuts in domestic programs.
Republicans will have a chance to vote on an alternative budget that attempts to meet those concerns to be introduced by the budget committee's ranking Republicans, Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico. Some Republicans hope to see the budget process hamstrung, forcing rapid compromise at the end of the fiscal year, when the President's negotiating hand is strongest. ``It's not suprising that a consensus is not easy,'' says Senator Chiles, adding that consensus is ``all but impossible if some withdraw to the sidelines.''
Yet consensus among senators will not assure peace. The Gramm-Rudman law mandates a deficit of no more than $108 billion in fiscal 1988. Virtually everyone in Congress believes it will be politically impossible to construct a spending plan that will result in that figure.
Nonetheless, $108 billion has become a potent political weapon in this year's budget debate. The House budget resolution uses the White House's sunny economic assumptions in order to bring the deficit in line, though no one in the House believes that such a deficit would result from that budget's implementation.
Likewise, Chiles is expected to avoid a political confrontation by dispensing with the economic assumptions of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which, on paper, would result in a $133.7 billion deficit, and employ White House figures.
Such a tactic may be, at best, a stop-gap solution. When the debt-ceiling bill comes up in May, Republicans and Democrats will try to attach some version of Gramm-Rudman's automatic budget-cutting mechanism struck down last year by the Supreme Court. Many hope the effort will force Congress either to alter the Gramm-Rudman targets, or raise taxes, or both.