Tuesday, March 24, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - House Democrats won’t advance President Obama’s controversial global warming initiative under fast-track rules that could effectively cut Senate Republicans out of the debate, a top Democratic lawmaker said Tuesday.

The House will try to use special budget procedures to remake the health care system, Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt Jr., D-S.C., said Tuesday.

Such procedures are the only way to pass bills with a simple majority in the Senate. If they are used, Republicans would have a limited ability to influence the landmark legislation. The idea is continuing to meet resistance from Senate Democrats such as Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad of North Dakota.

The developments come on the eve of debate in the House and Senate budget committees as they take the first steps to pass Obama’s $3.6 trillion budget plan for the fiscal year starting in October.

Under Congress’ arcane procedures, the annual congressional budget resolution is a nonbinding measure that sets the terms for follow-up legislation, sometimes including a filibuster-proof measure called a reconciliation bill.

The congressional budget plan also determines how much money to use for defense programs and domestic programs whose budgets are set each year by Congress, and it sets out the fiscal priorities of the governing party in Congress.

The panels are proposing cuts in Obama’s 11 percent increase for non-defense agency budgets and will not fully reflect his proposal to permanently curb the alternative minimum tax, a parallel tax system that threatens some 24 million tax filers with higher taxes. Without such steps, they would be unable to cut the deficit to manageable levels.

Obama’s plan to combat global warming would impose higher energy costs on consumers and businesses through a so-called “cap-and-trade” system for auctioning permits to emit greenhouse gases

Democrats such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California had advocated passing the controversial cap-and-trade plan under a special bill that can speed through the Senate on a simple majority vote, instead of the 60 votes needed to move most other legislation. Democrats and their allies control 58 seats at present.

But many Democrats, even party loyalists such as Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, oppose the idea, as do many House moderates. Pelosi is being forced to abandon the idea in the face of so much opposition.

At issue is whether to advance controversial Obama initiatives under filibuster-proof rules in the Senate. Republicans say the maneuver would freeze them out of deliberations on such important topics, and Democrats like Conrad say it shouldn’t be used for such complicated legislation. But the Democratic-dominated House wants to make sure Republicans don’t hijack the legislation.

“Reconciliation is pretty well settled,” Spratt said. “I think we’ll have reconciliation (for) health care.”

Also, neither budget assumes Obama’s $250 billion set-aside for more bailouts of banks and other firms.

In the Senate, Conrad is proposing to cut Obama’s $51 billion, 11 percent increase for non-defense agency budgets to about 7 percent. That’s a slightly smaller cut than he had earlier proposed.

But members of the appropriations panel say the cut is deceptively large since programs such as the decennial Census and the Federal Housing Administration need about $4 billion more each to stay on track. And emergency aid for Iraq and Afghanistan, which is proposed to cost $11 billion this year as an emergency expense, will be covered within next year’s regular budget, further reducing what’s available for non-defense programs like education.

On the alternative minimum tax, Spratt said the budget will not in later years incorporate Obama’s assumption that the $30 billion-plus cost of fixing the AMT and instead assumes other revenues are raised to limit its reach. The AMT was enacted in 1969 to make sure wealthy people pay at least some tax but now threatens to cost 24 million tax filers with increases averaging $2,000 or so a year.

Republicans continued their assault on the budget for its unprecedented levels of spending and for its dramatic increases in the national debt.

“We believe genuinely that it puts us on the path over 10 years for a very different kind of country, one with less freedom, one with more government, one with this extraordinary debt, and one which our children will have a very difficult time affording,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

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