- The Washington Times - Friday, March 15, 2002

House Democrats seem unlikely to offer an alternative fiscal 2003 budget on the House floor next week, leaving them open to charges by Republicans that they are shirking their responsibility.
Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt said yesterday no final decision has been made. But Democrats did not offer an alternative budget Wednesday when the Republican-controlled Budget Committee passed the Republican plan. Democrats have said that offering an alternative plan would distract the party from its unified message that the Republicans' budget dips into the Social Security trust fund.
"The difficulty that you have in structuring a budget this year within the Democratic caucus is we believe it's important to speak with a single message about Republicans' shortcomings," said Rep. Jim Turner, Texas Democrat and chairman of the conservative-leaning Blue Dog Democrats.
An alternate budget might divide Democrats by including things that not all members could support. Forgoing an alternate budget gives Democrats a chance to rally around their election-year message that Republicans in Congress pose a threat to Social Security.
"Our approach to the Republican budget plan is going to be trying to have that message be heard by the American people," Mr. Turner said.
Mr. Gephardt said the strategy is working.
"I've never seen all parts of our party as unified as they are in this case," said Mr. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat. "There is a complete meeting of the minds in this party that we have squandered the surplus, that no one heeded the warnings that we gave eight months ago, that Social Security is in danger, Medicare prescription drugs are not going to be able to happen."
But Republicans said not putting forth their own budget shows Democrats are out of ideas.
"When there's a war going on and a lot of big choices being made, the House Democrats have nothing to say and cannot come up with a consensus budget. That's stunning," said John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican. "Just because there are tough choices doesn't mean Democrats shouldn't make them. It just goes to a lack of leadership. Budgets are always difficult."
The House Budget Committee passed the $2.1 trillion Republican plan on a party-line vote. The plan which is very similar to the budget President Bush submitted in February. The Republican plan would spend all of the excess Social Security revenue above what's needed to cover immediate costs, and still produce a deficit of $46 billion.
Democrats on the committee criticized the budget from both sides, arguing that it spent too much money, while also charging that it didn't spend enough on particular areas like education and the environment. But Republicans said that without producing an alternate plan, Democrats have lost credibility on the issue.
This year would be the first time since Democrats became the minority in 1995 that they have not put forward an alternate budget. Minority budgets always fail, but parties usually propose them as a way to highlight different priorities.
The Blue Dogs have proposed their own plan in the past, but haven't done so yet this year. And the Congressional Black Caucus, which also has proposed plans in the past, will not do so this year.


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