In Senate, 2012 federal budget drama could take bipartisan turn

The House passed its federal budget bill Friday on a near party-line vote, but both the Senate and the president are working hard to forge a bipartisan alternative.

Jewel Samad/AFP/Newscom
President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden hold a meeting with Erskine Bowles (2nd l.) and former Sen. Alan Simpson (3rd r.) in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington Thursday.

The new House budget for 2012 draws heavily on the vision of a one-man think tank, Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, who called today’s vote a “defining moment.”

The plan, which passed today on a near party-line vote, 235 to 193, aims to lop some $5.8 trillion off federal spending over the next 10 years. It would do this mainly by embracing Congressman Ryan's signature issue – overhauling entitlements such as Medicare and Medicaid – but also by cutting the federal workforce by 10 percent and setting a binding cap on total spending as a percentage of the economy.

But the path ahead signals a completely different means of lawmaking. Where the House's so-called "Ryan bill" is associated with only one man, both the Senate and the president are focusing on trying to build bipartisan consensus.

In the Senate the so-called Gang of Six senators – including four veterans of the president’s Simpson-Bowles deficit commission – have been working behind closed doors for nearly five months to translate the findings of that commission into legislative language that could pass the Senate. Meanwhile, President Obama this week called on congressional leaders to set up nine-member, bipartisan group, headed by Vice President Joe Biden, to produce a blueprint by the end of June to cut $4 trillion out of federal deficits.

But the speed of the House's efforts – passing the 2012 budget only a day after it passed the 2011 spending bill to avoided a government shutdown – is putting pressure on the Senate, in particular, to pick up the pace. Senate Democratic leaders have said the House budget will be dead on arrival because of its drastic changes to Medicare, and they are eager to present something as an alternative.

“We’re making progress,” says Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, the deputy majority leader and a member of the Gang of Six. "If we can put a deal on the table, it will be an integral part of the debate,” he adds. “But there come a time – and we’re coming close to it – when our relevance runs up against timing.”

Gang of Six negotiations

Until now, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota has delayed committee deliberations on a 2012 budget in order to wait on the Gang of Six, which includes Senators Conrad and Durbin, as well as Sens. Mark Warner (D) of Virginia, Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, Saxby Chambliss (R) of Georgia, and Mike Crapo (R) of Idaho.

The vice president has urged the Gang of Six to continue their work, even as he launches his bipartisan negotiations.

Both the House budget and ongoing bipartisan efforts in the Senate draw on recommendations of the deficit commission. The Ryan plan credits the fiscal commission with identifying ways to save on discretionary spending, including cutting corporate tax breaks, overhauling how the government manages real estate assets, and reducing the federal auto fleet by 20 percent.

But House Republicans reject outright any effort to close the deficit gap by raising taxes. The House plan eliminates some $800 billion in tax increases related to implementation of the president’s health-care reform law and extends Bush-era tax cuts.

In the Senate, however, two Republicans in the Gang of Six – Senators Coburn and Crapo – backed tax increases as part of a comprehensive plan to resolve the nation’s debt crisis. “I’m hopeful we are getting to an agreement that’s good,” said Coburn Thursday.

House sparring

Democrats predicted that controversy over the House budget would run through 2012 elections and beyond. “It is an ethic for our country to keep our bedrock promise to our seniors, to keep our promise of Medicare, a benefit they have earned through a lifetime of work,” said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. “House Republicans are voting to break that promise, jeopardizing the health and economic security of America's seniors.”

In a response on the floor, Ryan said that Medicare as we know it will be bankrupt in nine years. “The biggest threat to Medicare is the status quo,” he said.

“This budget will bring more certainty to the American people – show the American people that we're serious about cutting spending – because we all know that cutting spending will reduce some of the uncertainty that's causing job creators to sit on their hands,” said Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio before Friday’s vote.

Asked at a press briefing whether he intended to appoint members to serve on the Biden commission, Boehner said: “We've had commissions around here and we've had commissions. Nobody's ever paid much attention. And clearly the president didn't pay any attention to his own deficit-reduction commission. The conversations are going to continue. We'll know more in the future.”

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