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Debate over budget balance less than balanced

- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 21, 2013

For Republicans, the budget debate is all about "balance." For Democrats, it's about being "balanced."

That letter "d" amounts to a $4 trillion difference between the two sides.

House Republicans on Thursday eked their blueprint through the chamber Thursday on a 221-207 vote, embracing a spending-cuts plan written by 2012 vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan that would see the budget reach "balance" in a decade.

In the Senate, meanwhile, the debate was ramping up on the Democrats' alternative, which uses a "balanced approach" by matching lower spending with higher taxes. But it does not reach "balance" — it would still see the government running deficits in excess of $500 billion at the end of the decade.

"We started counting last night, and my [Democratic] colleagues yesterday and last night, I think we stopped counting, used the phrase 'balanced' 24 times — 'This is a balanced approach, it's a balanced plan,'" said Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican. "Pretty soon they're saying they've got a balanced budget. Well, they don't have a balanced budget. We need to understand that fully."

The Republican focus on a balanced outcome stands in stark contrast to Democrats, who argue the key is to have balance in the process.

For President Obama and Democratic leaders, that means matching any spending cuts dollar-for-dollar with new tax increases.

"Yes, balance is an important word. It's an important word to every family, every community, every American. The approach we take is balanced, making sure that everyone has an opportunity in this country for the future that we need," said Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, Washington Democrat. "I take a back seat to no one when it comes to making sure that we have a balanced approach."

Democrats, led by Mr. Obama last week, have begun to argue that having a balanced budget isn't an important goal.

"My goal is not to chase a balanced budget just for the sake of balance," he said in an interview with ABC.

Mr. Obama isn't the first White House occupant to argue balance isn't an important goal. According to former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, then-Vice President Dick Cheney shot down concerns about ballooning spending early in the George W. Bush administration by saying that "Reagan proved that deficits don't matter."

Capitol Hill Republicans, though, now say deficits are a dominant worry.

Mr. Sessions offered a motion to force Mrs. Murray to take her budget back to committee and send one back that reaches balance in 10 years, but the Senate voted it down Thursday evening on a near-total party-line vote.

The motion was rejected on a 53-46 vote, with every Republican voting "yes" and every Democrat voting "no," except for Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who voted "yes," and Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey, who did not vote.

Under Senate budget rules, anyone who wants to insist on a vote on his amendment may do so. As of Thursday evening, hundreds of amendments had been filed and dozens of votes expected over the next couple of days on everything from Mr. Obama's recess appointments to defense spending to broad tax policy.

In one of Thursday's other votes, senators rejected Mr. Ryan's House-passed budget by a 59-40 vote, but in another, they voted to repeal a sales tax on medical devices that is part of President Obama's health-care law. That vote was overwhelming and bipartisan, passing by a 79-20 margin.

Mrs. Murray's budget calls for spending $3.7 trillion in fiscal 2014, and calls for taxes of about $3 trillion, leaving a deficit of nearly $700 billion. Over the next decade, her budget would spend $46.4 trillion and take in just $41.2 trillion in taxes, for accumulated deficits of more than $5 trillion.

By contrast, House Republicans' budget, which passed that chamber on Thursday, would spend $3.5 trillion next year and $41.5 trillion over the next decade, compared with tax revenues of $3 trillion in 2014 and $40.2 trillion over 10 years.

The Republican plan would leave a half-trillion-dollar deficit next year, and accumulated deficits of $1.2 trillion over the decade — or about $4 trillion less than Mrs. Murray's plan.

"We can't continue to spend money that we don't have. It's as simple as that," said House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, who warned of a looming "debt crisis."

But Democrats said the budget ignored Mr. Obama's 2012 victory, which they said showed voters back tax increases rather than spending cuts.

"We should instead be focusing on job growth and putting people back to work," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat.

The 221-207 House vote saw 10 Republicans join Democrats in opposition — the same number of defections as on Mr. Ryan's budget last year, which became fodder for Democratic political attacks on the campaign trail.

Budgets are not signed into law, but provide a blueprint for both the tax and spending committees to move forward with bills this year. The renewed interest in passing budgets comes after Republicans wrote a law earlier this year that would withhold lawmakers' pay beginning April 15 unless their chamber approved a blueprint.

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