Girding for a federal budget battle royale, parties wrangle over rules

With Capitol Hill bracing for a battle over financial policy this summer, the focus now is on rules for the committee that will seek to reconcile House and Senate versions of the federal budget.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada talks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 23, 2013. Senator Reid asked for unanimous consent to appoint Senate negotiators for a budget conference with the House, which House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio called 'stunt.'

In Washington, sometimes you even have to negotiate guidelines for negotiations.

The House and Senate are creeping toward the summer’s battle royale over debt, deficits, the 2014 fiscal year federal budget, and the nation’s borrowing limit – a swarm of financial topics that will hit Capitol Hill before lawmakers break for the traditional August recess.

But right now, the leaders of both parties are trying to reach a deal on the rules for the committee that will attempt to reconcile the deeply conservative budget passed by the House GOP and the equally liberal measure offered by Senate Democrats last month.

The first steps of this drama played out in the Senate on Wednesday.

In a move clearly aimed both at shining a spotlight on the issue of the budget and tweaking the GOP in the process, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada asked for unanimous consent to appoint Senate negotiators for a budget conference with the House.

Republicans have been the most prominent champions of so-called regular order requiring both chambers to pass budgets and subsequently agree on a compromise through negotiation. The Republican House was even the originator earlier this year of an idea that required both chambers of Congress to pass budgets or forego their pay until the end of the congressional session.

So it may appear slightly hypocritical at first blush that Republicans objected to Senator Reid’s request.

Republicans said the Nevadan’s move was little more than a “stunt,” in the words of a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio. The GOP still wants a budget, lawmakers in both houses said Tuesday – they just want to clarify what the rules of the negotiating road will be before they start the process of hammering out differences between the deeply divergent visions for the nation’s finances.

“We need a conference,” says Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, the ranking conservative on the Senate Budget Committee. “But it’s certainly preferable that we have some understanding of what it’s going to be like before we go. There are a lot of concerns there.”

Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray (D) of Washington and her House counterpart, Chairman Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin are discussing how, exactly, the process should go forward.

Why is this agreement such a key concern?

Last week, Speaker Boehner laid out the political importance of having the two budget chairs reach a deal.

If the budget negotiators deadlock, Boehner pointed out in his weekly press conference, legislative rules allow the minority party (in this case, Democrats) to offer “politically motivated bombs” on the floor of the House. In the Senate, both majority and minority parties can offer what are known as “motions to instruct” their budget negotiators.

The results in the Senate can be just as politically explosive, with both parties jamming their instructions full of language meant to scorch vulnerable members of the other party.

At this point, both parties are trying to figure out just how far they’re willing to go on the budget. In years gone by, the budget has largely been confined to outlining the spending priorities for the coming fiscal year.

But the confluence of the document’s political visibility, Washington’s long-running financial battles, and the measure’s special legislative rules make it a potential vehicle for change in the nation’s spending and taxing structure.

Democrats portray Republicans, as Reid told reporters on Tuesday, as beholden to deeply conservative members of their caucus with a seemingly congenital disapproval to the tax increases pushed by Democrats. Without some new tax revenue, Democrats say, what’s the point?

In turn, Republicans like Sessions believe it will take a stronger sign from President Obama himself on altering the nation’s entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security to make a budget conference worthwhile.

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