Republicans and Democrats begin budget duel universes apart

The Republican budget would slash health care and save the Pentagon; the Democratic plan would trim the Pentagon and add tax revenue. But Washington is still hopeful a deal can be done.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin holds up a copy of the House Budget Committee 2014 Budget Resolution as he speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday.

House Republicans and Senate Democrats laid out their budget principles on Tuesday, leaving Americans in no doubt that the differences between the two parties are as stark as ever.

Republicans tore into President Obama’s health-care reform law and shielded the Pentagon from planned cuts, while Democrats will propose adding tax revenue and cutting defense spending, according to a source.

And this is how Mr. Obama and party leaders hope to solve the nation’s long-running battle over its financial future?

Given the hugely divergent views offered on Capitol Hill Tuesday, why does anyone in Washington think that the budget process holds any promise at all?

The answer is that it is the last untried avenue for resolving the fiscal debate that has gripped Washington since 2009.

Senate Democrats have not offered a budget plan of their own since 2009, which has prevented "normal order" – the process by which House Republicans and Senate Democrats lay out their priorities in separate bills and then hammer out a compromise.

Now, that is at least a possibility. But even if this formal process fails, Washington will have at least begun the debate about the nation’s finances well in advance the next debt-ceiling deadline this summer. That could give Washington time to hash out a solution to some of its most intractable differences before another white-knuckled trip to the edge of a financial abyss.

The president “feels that it would be helpful for the Congress to try and reconcile their differences, and he certainly would be party to that process,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D) of Maryland after Obama's meeting with Senate Democrats Tuesday. “I don’t think anybody expects that’s going to happen in a quick time frame, but ultimately if we’re able to be successful [in fixing the nation’s finances], we have to reconcile the two budgets.”

That was a sentiment echoed on the other side of Capitol Hill by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan earlier in the day.

“We want to revive the budget process so that we have regular order. What does that mean? That means let's do our jobs,” Representative Ryan of Wisconsin said. “What that means is we're reviving a process that's not in the back room but that shows how we're going to accomplish these goals. We want to revive this budget process so at the end of the day we can have a vehicle to actually get something done. And I don't think the president disagrees with that.”

The budget debate kicked off Tuesday with its usual partisan ferocity.

Republicans led by Ryan suggested cuts at the expense of core government functions beloved by Democrats, bringing their budget into balance in a decade’s time. Senate Democrats led by Budget Committee chairwoman Patty Murray are planning to offer their own vision on Wednesday, which will offer an immediate infusion of transportation and job-training funds alongside about half as much deficit reduction as Ryan’s plan during the next decade.

Where Ryan found $4.6 trillion in spending cuts during the next 10 years, Murray will seek $975 billion in lower government spending. Just under half will come from domestic priorities including health care, a quarter billion in lower Pentagon expenditures, and a similar amount in reduced interest payments stemming from a lower national debt.

In addition, Senate Democrats will seek $975 billion in further deficit reduction by cutting tax expenditures – reining in the tax breaks Congress extends to various groups. Those details are being left to the Senate Finance Committee, but the bill will include special legislative instructions to allow tax reformers to expedite those changes around a likely filibuster.

The complexity of reconciling two such vastly different budgets is made more tortuous by the political factors at play. A budget vote is fraught with political danger – a key factor, many Congress-watchers say, in why Senate Democratic leaders have failed to propose a budget the past three years.
Democrats from conservative-leaning states who are facing reelection in 2014 will “have to make their own determination” on whether or not to vote for the budget, said Guy Cecil, director of the Democratic Party’s organization dedicated to electing progressive senators, during a call with reporters on Monday.
 Republicans are ready to pounce on Democrats who vote for more tax hikes.
"Democratic incumbents in Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska, North Carolina, Montana, and South Dakota are going to have a tough time explaining why their first budget in four years raises taxes, increases spending, and fails to stabilize Medicare,” said Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, in a statement on Monday.
 But in the House, Democrats are keen to hammer Republicans in moderate districts as boosters of the Ryan budget’s cuts to government programs from education to health-care and its reforms to Medicare.
From that messy political place, lawmakers are going to try to get to the compromises they’ve been unable to reach before.
 “I don’t think that [divergent budget views] mean we can’t get there,” says Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee. “It shows the gulf we have to cross is as wide as it ever was.”

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