- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Senate yesterday barely defeated a Democratic budget proposal that would have required Congress to pay for new entitlement program spending or tax cuts — a measure Republicans say was designed to prevent them from extending such cuts.

The election-year debate over tax cuts and debt erupted as Sen. Kent Conrad, the top Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, tried to add the proposal to the 2007 budget blueprint being considered this week.

“For those who say they’re fiscally responsible, here’s your chance,” the North Dakotan told Republicans, before his proposal was defeated on a 50-50 vote, failing to gain a majority. “You’re going to be able to prove with one vote whether or not you’re serious about doing something about these runaway debts and these runaway deficits.”

Republicans voting for the proposal were Sens. Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island, Susan Collins of Maine, John McCain of Arizona, Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and George V. Voinovich of Ohio.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, argued that Mr. Conrad’s effort was about raising taxes, not imposing fiscal discipline. “The way this amendment is structured, it guarantees a tax increase,” he said.

Because the budget doesn’t include any new spending for entitlement programs, Mr. Gregg said, the Democrats’ budget rule — known as paygo — would apply only to the tax cuts Republicans want to extend this year, including a lower tax rate for capital gains and dividends income.

Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, voted against the paygo rules yesterday but supported them in November, when Mr. Conrad tried to attach them to a special budget bill that failed. Mr. Coburn said he voted against paygo yesterday because the proposal would make it too difficult to extend the lower capital gains and dividends tax rates this year.

The paygo rules were in effect through the 1990s and were strongly supported by Republicans, such as Mr. Gregg, Mr. Conrad said. He added that Republicans oppose the rules now because they would like to keep increasing spending while cutting taxes.

The Senate is considering the fiscal 2007 budget blueprint this week, which would set a $873 billion cap on discretionary spending this year, the level requested by President Bush. Mr. Gregg called the budget “austere” but “not as austere as it should be because it doesn’t have entitlement reform.”

Some conservatives are disappointed that Senate Republican leaders weren’t able to make any of Mr. Bush’s suggested changes to the entitlement side of the ledger, including a suggested $35 billion in Medicare savings.

Mr. Gregg said he couldn’t gather enough support from either party to make those tough changes in an election year. Democrats called the reforms cruel cuts that would hurt seniors, and many Senate Republicans were unnerved.

The Senate will break from the budget today or tomorrow to vote on a separate measure that would raise the debt limit. Democrats want to amend the measure, which would send it back to the House for a second vote.

Senators agreed yesterday to a Republican amendment that would shift $3 billion to return defense spending to Mr. Bush’s requested level. They beat back amendments to increase energy and education funding.

Still ahead is the budget’s most raucous debate: whether to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Democrats and several Republicans will unite this week to try to strip the provision from the budget proposal.

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