- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 9, 2003

Budget battles and boxing bouts have at least one thing in common they both feature main events. This year, the normally sleepy congressional budget process could turn into the real legislative slugfest of 2003. It's the first round for the major legislative fights of the 108th Congress; it will test the strength of the new Republican majority in the Senate; and it's the opening bell for some pivotal issues in the 2004 presidential election.

All this could happen much earlier than most expect. That's why the budget process is this year's congressional main event so get ready to rumble.

Senate Republican leaders consistently criticized Democrats for not passing a budget in 2002. "I think you can safely assume this Congress will not only pass a budget resolution, but pass it on time," a member of the Senate Republican leadership said. This means the first step passing a final version of budget agreed on by the House and the Senate will happen by April 15, the date mandated by law, something Congress has accomplished only five times since 1974.

In 1974, Congress passed the Budget and Impoundment Control Act. It calls for lawmakers to approve an annual budget resolution laying out overall targets for spending and revenue. Through a process known as "reconciliation," Congress can also make adjustments in taxes and spending in entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, to ensure overall expenditures and revenues (and that federal budget deficits or surpluses) are in line with lawmakers' wishes.

Congress originally intended the reconciliation process to occur at the end of the year, accounting for all spending actions and then making adjustments to reach budgetary goals. This all changed in 1981, when President Reagan and his allies in Congress used reconciliation to force spending and tax cuts through Congress much earlier in the year.

The Senate normally allows unlimited debate, which can bog down the process, meaning death for many bills. Ordinarily, invoking "cloture," which requires 60 votes, is the only way to break this deadlock.

However, according to Senate rules, neither the budget resolution nor the reconciliation legislation that follows are subject to filibusters. Only 51 votes are required to move ahead when the Senate considers legislation under these special budget rules. So politically charged issues like tax cuts, prescription drugs, Medicare changes, authorization to drill in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and welfare reform, considered under these rules can pass with a simple majority in the Senate. Reconciliation is a legislative lubricant making the wheels of government turn more smoothly.

That's why this year's budget battle is sure to be the main event. It will authorize lawmakers to use the reconciliation process to serve as the vehicle for several major pieces of legislation that could not pass the Senate without these rules. Hill insiders say congressional Republicans will mandate two or maybe even three reconciliation bills, with their special procedural protections, for rapid-fire action on several key issues later this spring and early summer.

The first reconciliation bill will carry President Bush's tax-cut plan announced two days ago, which White House aides say they want passed by Memorial Day. These same strategists want to pass prescription-drug legislation in a second bill by the August recess. "If we can't pass this legislation early, using these special procedures, it's not going to happen," an Administration official said. Other changes in entitlement spending, reauthorizing welfare reform programs, further tax adjustments and drilling in ANWR may get included in these first two bills or added to a third reconciliation vehicle.

Congressional Republicans should also strive to gain some bipartisan support for the budget resolution and the later reconciliation bills. Garnering Democratic votes for President Bush's tax cut in 2001 was a key to insulating Republicans from attacks in 2002. It will benefit Republicans moving into the next election if votes on thorny political issues dealing with spending, taxes and Medicare enjoy some bipartisan support. Recall how effectively Republicans used the arguments of raw partisanship and overreaching against the Democrats when President Clinton pursued a "Democrat only" strategy on issues such as health care and economic stimulus in 1993-94 when his party controlled both chambers of Congress.

Given the nature of the issues in this year's budget, it will set the stage for the most significant legislative and political fights of 2003, and possibly the 2004 presidential contest, much earlier and faster than most people expect. So don't think the congressional budget process is only important to "green eye-shade types." This year the stakes are high, the implications broad and lawmakers are about to throw the first punch.

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