- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Democratic lawmakers are barreling ahead on a budget that significantly eases procedural hurdles to health care reform, though the Senate budget chief said he “sincerely” believes that Democrats will use the fast-track option against Republicans only as a last resort.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, said Monday night that lawmakers reached a deal and hope to have both the House and Senate vote on President Obama’s $3.6 trillion budget this week.

Mr. Conrad made the announcement hours after a heated meeting of four Democrats and three Republicans on the conference committee. Republicans challenged Democrats over levels of spending and the use of the so-called “reconciliation” process to push health care and education reforms favored by Mr. Obama, a move that would undercut the ability of Senate Republicans to filibuster the final package.

Under the deal, Mr. Conrad agreed to include the fast-track instructions, which were part of the House budget resolution but not the Senate version.

“It is there as an insurance policy,” said Mr. Conrad, adding that he is “no fan” of the procedure.

“A ‘gun’ would be more accurate than an ‘insurance policy,’ ” said Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, ranking Republican on the panel, who equated reconciliation with silencing the Republican minority in Congress.

“I can understand shaking [Venezuelan President] Hugo Chavez’s hand, but I can’t understand embracing his policies,” said Mr. Gregg, referring to Mr. Obama’s brief meeting with the authoritarian Venezuelan leader at last week’s Summit of the Americas.

Congress would have until Oct. 15 to pass Mr. Obama’s bid to overhaul the nation’s health care system. If no deal is reached by then, Democrats could attach health care to the budget reconciliation bill, effectively marginalizing the Senate’s 41 Republicans because it would need only a simple majority to pass.

The budget does not factor in money to fund Mr. Obama’s health plan, but stipulates that any policy must be deficit-neutral.

The Democratic budget includes $764 billion in net tax cuts, said Mr. Conrad, who said the deficit would be cut from its current level of $1.2 trillion by one-half in three years and by two-thirds in five years, to $523 billion.

Democrats took aim at Republican opposition to reconciliation, saying the Republican Party used the procedure to push through President Bush’s tax cuts in 2001 and in other instances. Republicans said policy shifts involved in a health care overhaul go far beyond the scope of the budget.

In the area of education, the rule would apply to Mr. Obama’s proposal to replace the federal student loan program, which works through private lenders, with direct lending by the government.

Mr. Conrad and his House counterpart, Rep. John M. Spratt Jr., South Carolina Democrat, touted their budget Monday as the only feasible response to a fiscal mess created by the Bush administration.

“You had your chance for eight years,” Mr. Conrad said. “You doubled the debt.”

Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, challenged Mr. Conrad’s deficit-reduction figures.

“Those numbers only get you there if you cook the books,” said Mr. Ryan. “This is the most irresponsible budget I have ever seen.”

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