In a stunning backtrack that virtually guarantees Congress for the third year will be unable to produce a budget, Senate Democrats' top budget writer Tuesday canceled this week's expected votes on a 2013 fiscal blueprint.
Instead, Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, said he will use the next few months to try to breathe life into the shelved 2-year-old Bowles-Simpson deficit commission proposal.
Mr. Conrad said he wasn't going to be able to reach a bipartisan agreement on a budget plan and he decided instead to try to kick-start a longer-term debate.
"This is the wrong time to vote in the committee. This is the wrong time to vote on the floor," Mr. Conrad told reporters as he announced his strategy. "We do need to try to maximize the chance as we get closer to all the tax cuts expiring and the sequester being imposed that we're ready to act."
He said he will still convene the Budget Committee this week and introduce his plan, but won't hold any votes or debate any amendments.
His move stunned Senate Republicans, who had been preparing amendments for Wednesday and Thursday.
"It's hard to negotiate with somebody who won't tell you where they are," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, who said Mr. Conrad was breaking a promise he made to debate and vote on a budget.
Hanging over the discussion is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, who had steadfastly said he would not bring a budget to the floor this year — and who, Republicans said, pressured Mr. Conrad into complying.
On Tuesday, Mr. Reid declined to answer specific questions about his strategy but told reporters he had "nothing but confidence for Kent Conrad."
Given the opposition, Mr. Conrad instead decided to try to revive the Bowles-Simpson plan, named after former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson, who led a commission that produced a plan for raising taxes and limiting spending — all designed to reduce long-term deficits.
Though President Obama established the Bowles-Simpson commission, he rejected its December 2010 proposal, and Democrats who controlled Congress at the time did not bring up it up for a vote.
But it has simmered in the background, with lawmakers occasionally saying it should serve as a basis for negotiations — only to see both Democratic and Republican leaders block their efforts.
Mr. Conrad, a member of the commission, said the plan needs to be updated, but that his version will lower the debt to 93 percent of gross domestic product by 2022 — it is more than 100 percent now — and would push for changes in Social Security, while preserving Mr. Obama's health care law.
Under Mr. Conrad's plan, spending would be nearly 22 percent of GDP in 2022 and taxes would be 20.5 percent. Both numbers are well above the average for the past six decades, but the North Dakota Democrat said those are the levels needed to fund the government's promises.
In 2012, spending will account for about 24 percent of GDP and taxes will total about 16 percent.
He said starting the debate now on Bowles-Simpson could set the table for a deal at the end of this year, when the federal government's fiscal picture reaches a crisis point. That's when the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are due to expire, and when automatic spending cuts imposed after last year's debt deal are scheduled to bite.
"I know this is sort of geeky stuff, but the hard reality is that the amount of time it takes to put together these plans is really daunting," Mr. Conrad said. "This takes weeks and weeks and months and months of effort, and that's why I think it's important to begin."
His change in direction earned encouraging words from Mr. Bowles and Mr. Simpson, who said it marked an advance in the fiscal debate.
The Bowles-Simpson framework has earned a sort of cult status among budget watchdog groups for its bipartisan approach and for seeking both tax increases and some limits to the growth of spending.
But it has not fared well on Capitol Hill. Last month a bipartisan group in the House offered a version of the plan during the budget debate, but it was defeated by a 382-38 vote.
Congress is about to go its third year without passing a budget. During that time debt has ballooned and the government is poised to run its fourth year of trillion-dollar deficits.
Senate Democrats say a budget isn't needed because last year's debt deal already set maximum discretionary spending numbers.
Still, those numbers don't replace the broader budget document that sets goals for entitlement programs, taxes and discretionary spending for the next decade.
House Republicans last month pushed their budget plan through their chamber on a 228-191 vote.
Without a companion bill from the Senate, however, there is no chance to negotiate a final agreement. So on Tuesday, House Republicans passed a resolution that orders the chamber's annual spending bills be written to comply with the House budget.
The Senate is working off of a higher top-line spending number based on last year's debt deal negotiations, meaning the two chambers are writing the 12 annual spending bills at different levels, making it tougher to reconcile them at the end of the year.
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