- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 1, 2005

House and Senate leaders are trying to build an early consensus during negotiations over the budget as they pursue passage of it before the April 15 deadline, a rarity in recent history.

Congress has finished a budget early only three times in 31 years, said Senate Budget Committee spokeswoman Gayle Osterberg.

“We won’t be able to see where we really are until we get the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate numbers, which we don’t expect to come out until the end of this week,” Miss Osterberg said.

Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican and chairman of the Budget Committee, hopes to meet a schedule by which committees begin a detailed analysis in markup sessions next week and get a product to the floor for debate the week of March 14.

Committee members have stressed absolute support for President Bush’s budget proposal, which calls for restraint and cuts in non-defense discretionary spending coupled with a small increase in defense and homeland security spending.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, has stressed to his colleagues that the cuts must be evenhanded across the board, said a Senate Republican staffer.

“Agriculture should not be asked to do more than any other area of the budget and vice versa,” the staffer said.

Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, and Mr. Gregg are close to reaching a preliminary agreement for the caucus, said a staffer familiar with the negotiations.

The House might be a tougher sell this year. Last year, the House quickly passed two budget resolutions that stalled in the Senate, and debate over scaling back some of Mr. Bush’s tax cuts blocked passage of a budget resolution.

“We’ll have a budget when we have a budget,” said House Budget Committee staffers, adding that it was “too early to talk about it at this point.”

At issue in the House is the $81 billion emergency wartime supplemental that the White House submitted two weeks ago, and the president’s proposal to cut or drastically alter the entitlement spending programs, Medicare and Social Security.

“A lot of the comment from the [Republican] conference is on the supplemental,” said a House Republican staffer. “Several have made the case that some of the items in the president’s supplemental plan are not emergency needs.”

Some Democrats have complained that the supplemental should have been included in the budget, but money-conscious Republicans who remember the Pentagon’s “golden toilet seat” spending in the 1980s don’t want a perpetual wartime funding scenario tagged to the budget for the next five years.

Analysts said they are less than optimistic about a successful budget season this year, but do expect a resolution.

“They are faced with a number of challenges, but I do think they would like to get a budget this year,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan, grass-roots organization advocating fiscal responsibility.

Mr. Bixby said Congress will have to set tight caps on discretionary spending.

“The entitlement cuts does throw a monkey wrench into the program because in past years, when [committee] leaders have put that on the table, the rank and file were not happy about that. This year, it is the president saying it,” he said. “It is much easier to ignore the budget committee chairman than it is to ignore the president.”

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