Congressional Democrats have decided it's impossible to pass a budget this year, and instead will impose one-year spending limits while trying to lay the groundwork for long-term budget restraint.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said Tuesday a budget, which sets out binding one-year targets and a multiyear plan, is useless this year because Congress has shunted key questions about deficits to the independent debt commission created by President Obama, which is due to report back at the end of this year.
The House and Senate don't always agree on a final budget compromise, but the House itself has never failed to pass its own version of the spending blueprint.
The decision leaves much of the rest of Democrats' agenda in doubt and drew ridicule from Republicans, who pointed out Mr. Hoyer himself has deemed passing a budget a basic test of the ability to govern.
The Maryland Democrat, though, said that this year there's no point.
"It isn't possible to debate and pass a realistic, long-term budget until we've considered the bipartisan commission's deficit-reduction plan, which is expected in December," Mr. Hoyer said at a speech sponsored by Third Way, a progressive think tank, in which he also warned tax increases will be needed to solve the country's long-term fiscal imbalance.
Spending and the country's debt - which stood at $13.04 trillion on Monday - have become dominant issues in Washington in recent months as Republicans accuse Mr. Obama of overspending and expanding the government.
On Tuesday, GOP lawmakers repeatedly pointed to statements from Mr. Hoyer and House Budget Committee Chairman John M. Spratt Jr., South Carolina Democrat, who in 2006, when Republicans were in the majority and struggling to approve a budget, said passing one is a basic responsibility of Congress.
"Every American family also knows what Washington Democrats can't seem to grasp: In tough times, it's more important - not less - to have a budget, to set priorities and to live within your means," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.
The Senate Budget Committee passed its version of the budget in April, but the plan has stalled since then. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said the Senate Democratic leadership is still discussing how to fit a budget debate into the crowded Senate floor schedule.
Meanwhile, the key action on getting a handle on government spending is happening in Mr. Obama's 18-member debt commission, which is debating what mix of spending cuts and tax increases will be needed to put the country on sound long-term fiscal footing.
But analysts question whether the commission can reach any conclusions, given its partisan breakdown and the fact that any recommendations will require 14 of the 18 members' support.
By failing to pass a budget, Democrats are putting a powerful tool off the table. That was underscored earlier this year when Democrats used the budget process to push through President Obama's massive health care overhaul despite lacking the 60 votes needed to overcome a Senate filibuster.
But the budget is always one of the toughest votes Congress takes each year, because its broad scope and difficult trade-offs leave so many lawmakers uncomfortable. This year, Democrats would have been hard-pressed to write a plan that didn't show red ink spilling out for the foreseeable future, and that prospect would have put off many Democrats already worried about their re-election prospects in November.
Just as difficult will be how to handle President George W. Bush's tax cuts, many of which, because of budget rules, expire at the end of this year.
Mr. Hoyer warned that they can't all be extended, but Republicans say that amounts to a tax increase.
"If that's the Democrats' response to the growing deficit problem, it seems to me they're heading in exactly - exactly - the wrong direction," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.
Mr. Hoyer, in his speech, said Republicans have no standing in the budget-cutting debate, given their record over the last several decades.
"Every year that I've served with a Republican president - every year, without fail - there's been a budget deficit of significance," he said.
Mr. Hoyer said that, in lieu of a formal budget, House Democrats will impose one-year targets on the chamber's Appropriations Committee, and said party leaders are "close to reaching agreement" on what those levels will be.
He also defended last year's $862 billion economic stimulus act, saying it is temporary spending and that without it, more jobs would have been lost and tax revenues would have fallen even further. He said that means the deficit could have been worse without the stimulus than with it.
Republicans have sharply criticized the stimulus plan as ineffectual, and have tried unsuccessfully to shift still-unspent funds from the package to pay down the federal debt.
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