- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Before leaving for their Easter break, the House and Senate passed their respective budget resolutions by extremely narrow margins. Although Republicans increased their Senate majority from 51 members to 55 in the last election, the Senate budget blueprint passed by only a 51-49 margin. Four GOP senators (Olympia Snowe of Maine, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and Mike DeWine and George Voinovich of Ohio) joined all 44 Democrats and the Senate’s single independent in opposing the final package. In the House, where Republican gains in November raised the GOP advantage to 30 seats, the budget passed by a narrow 218-214 margin.

The House and Senate versions differ in important ways, including the amounts set aside for entitlement savings and tax cuts. The Senate, for example, effectively threw in the towel on entitlements by establishing a Medicaid commission instead of mustering the courage to implement restraints on Medicaid’s explosive growth rate. The fact that these two markedly different budgets passed by such narrow margins means that the inevitably large compromises that need to be ironed out in conference may not be acceptable to a majority in one or both houses. Congress has failed to pass a budget resolution twice in the past three years.

The failure to adopt a budget blueprint this year will have additional consequences. While the resolution itself is non-binding and does not require the signature of the president, it would nonetheless set the stage for a budget-reconciliation bill, which could be passed in the Senate by a simple majority of 51 votes, including Vice President Dick Cheney’s tie-breaker, rather than a filibuster-proof 60-vote supermajority. In addition, for the first time since the 1997 balanced-budget agreement, the reconciliation process this year offers the opportunity to reduce, albeit slightly, the runaway growth rate of entitlement spending. The Senate-passed resolution, moreover, included a provision to permit oil exploration in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which has the potential to supply as much as 1.4 million barrels of oil per day at peak production, according to estimates by the U.S. Geological Survey. During the 1990s, President Clinton vetoed congressional legislation authorizing ANWR exploration; and Senate Democrats during the Bush administration have successfully filibustered Republican efforts to authorize oil exploration in ANWR.

Finally, failure to pass a congressional budget resolution and a subsequent reconciliation measure in the aftermath of the Republicans’ resounding victories in last year’s presidential, House and Senate elections would send an unfortunate signal that the Republican Party cannot get its governing act together. This is not the message Republicans should be sending before they begin to address the Social Security crisis.

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