- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Democrats’ efforts to pare down President Obama’s $3.7 trillion budget seem to have worked as leaders in both chambers expect it to pass easily even though they’ve put off the thorniest question of whether to fast-track health care and other big-ticket items.

But even their adjusted budgets must clear a few remaining hurdles as the Senate tackles a slew of contentious amendments, including the size of deficits and tax cuts. In the House, Democrats are expected to swat down alternative budgets from Republicans as well as from the conservative, liberal and black caucuses.

“I think we’ll have unity at the end,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said Tuesday.

To make the plans palatable to moderate Democrats, congressional budget chiefs did not include Mr. Obama’s controversial cap-and-trade policy and eliminated his middle-class tax cut. Sen. Kent Conrad and Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. also sought to trim spending and reduce the deficit by at least $150 billion more by 2014 than the president had proposed.

Still, some moderate Democrats are on the fence, waiting to see if their concerns are addressed through the amendment process before committing their support.

“I have a wait-and-see attitude about how amendments are offered,” said Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat.

Likewise, Sen. Ben Nelson said, he wants to see what the final budget resolution will look like.

“I’m still concerned about spending,” the Nebraska Democrat said. “I’d like to see the deficit reduced sooner, and I’m concerned about the percentage of spending that constitutes a structural part of the budget for future budgets.”

A major sticking point that won’t be addressed until both chambers pass their budget resolutions is whether to include “reconciliation,” or the fast-tracking of certain items. Doing so would mean that Democrats could push through future changes on policies like health care or cap-and-trade with limited debate and a simple majority in the Senate. Although the Senate version does not include a fast-track provision, moderates worry that it could be included in conference after the bills are passed because the House budget resolution calls for reconciliation.

Mr. Conrad, chairman of the Senate budget panel, and other key Democrats say they oppose such a measure because they say it would short-circuit a thorough discussion, but a Republican amendment to force a vote on it is causing Democrats trouble. The proposal by Sen. Mike Johanns, Nebraska Republican, would bar the use of reconciliation.

“If you want to eliminate the need for a United States Senate, all you have to do is bring these votes through reconciliation,” Mr. Johanns said.

Even though several of his members oppose reconciliation, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said such an amendment is not necessary.

“I don’t know why everyone’s up in arms. The Senate budget resolution does not have reconciliation in it, and I don’t think that anyone’s hands should be tied further than that,” Mr. Reid said.

Despite the concerns among some moderates, Mr. Reid has enough support to pass the budget, which, unlike other legislation, only requires 50 of 58 Democrats to vote for it.

“I expect to vote for it,” said Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Delaware Democrat and co-chairman of a recently formed working group of moderate Democrats.

Meanwhile, Republicans continue to blast the budget as too heavy on spending, borrowing and taxing.

“If we follow the president’s plan, over the next 10 years we’ll double the national debt in five years, triple it in 10 years, accumulate more debt than throughout the history of our country from George Washington down through George W. Bush,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said. “This is clearly the wrong direction for America.”

Senate Republicans have declined to offer a full alternate budget, saying they instead will peck away at Democrats’ plan. In the House, though, there’s no shortage of alternatives from both sides.

The Congressional Black Caucus budget would devote more money to education, health care, transportation, veterans and international affairs, while the Congressional Progressive Caucus budget cuts defense, redeploys troops from Iraq, boosts veterans’ health care funding, invests in school repairs and infrastructure projects and spends an additional $300 billion to stimulate the economy in 2010.

The Republican Study Committee, made up of conservative Republicans in the House, said it will also have an alternative budget, though the details haven’t been finalized.

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this article.

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