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Partisanship Is About to Sink Budget Plan

Congress: Agreement on spending caps eludes lawmakers in an election year, which opens the door for a 'free-for-all' on pet projects.


WASHINGTON — Congress is about to fall down on its most basic job: writing a budget plan for the U.S. government.

Even though Republicans and Democrats are not far apart on many key spending priorities, lawmakers are so polarized in this election year that it seems increasingly unlikely they will adopt a budget resolution.

Such a resolution, which sets an annual ceiling on government spending, is supposed to be passed by today. But there's no final plan in sight.

That does not mean the government grinds to a halt. But it does mean--without an overall budget cap--it will be harder to keep lawmakers from adding pet projects to the appropriation bills that fund specific agencies and programs.

"We're in for a free-for-all," Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) said.

The situation could put tremendous pressure on President Bush, whose veto may loom as the only strong check on spending. Bush told Republican leaders last week he was prepared to wield his authority for the sake of fiscal discipline.

"He's itching to do it," Santorum said.

The partisan logjam on the budget resolution shows how much the climate has changed in Congress since the immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when differences between the parties melted away and lawmakers quickly passed an array of complex measures.

Now, Congress seems incapable of bridging differences large and small. The result is impasse on issues ranging from energy policy to the confirmation of judicial nominees. Even a bill to correct a grammatical error in an obscure 1925 statute on legal procedures has stalled in the Senate.

No issue is more fundamental to Congress' role as guardian of the public purse than the budget process that has guided government spending decisions since 1974.

"We are going to be living in a lawless, ruleless world with regard to budget" if Congress does not agree to a spending cap, said Carol Cox Waite, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan watchdog group.

The budget process was designed to force Congress to set parameters for spending and revenue by today, before it passes tax and spending bills for particular programs.

Although Congress can--and often does--override the proposed ceiling, the budget makes it more difficult for spending to increase willy-nilly. For example, three-fifths of the Senate, not a simple majority, is needed to pass a spending measure that violates the budget.

The Republican-controlled House, on a narrow party-line vote, in March passed a resolution for a $2.1-trillion budget that broadly reflected Bush's priorities and allowed for a $45-billion deficit. It made room for the big funding increases for defense and homeland security; conversely, the plan would slow the growth of spending for an array of domestic programs.

The Democratic-controlled Senate, however, appears stalemated in its budget debate. The Senate Budget Committee, on a party-line vote, last month approved a competing resolution that would give Bush none of the additional tax cuts he requested while spending more than the House plan on domestic programs and debt reduction.

But Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) has no immediate plans to bring the budget resolution to the floor, acknowledging that he does not have the votes to pass it. Republican leaders say none of their ranks will vote for the resolution, and some Democrats have said they cannot support it. Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), for one, said it does not reduce the deficit enough.

Republicans have begun to lambaste Democrats for not passing a budget, saying it is evidence of their inability to do more than criticize the GOP.

Said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.): "What better example of whether or not you can govern than whether or not you have a budget for the year?"

Daschle has said he expects the Senate will take up the budget "at some point." But it wasn't included in Daschle's recent list of bills next up in the Senate. And a senior advisor to Daschle said that even if the Senate passed a budget, it would be hard to reach a compromise in a conference committee with House members.

"I don't think there's a conference product that can come out of this," said the advisor, who requested anonymity. "What good is it doing a budget resolution?"

In truth, the House and Senate resolutions are not that different in the short term: Both would increase defense and homeland security spending and both would run deficits to help pay for it.

But provisions for the years ahead diverge in ways that neither side may be inclined to reconcile. The Senate budget, for instance, would not guarantee Bush the defense buildup he seeks after 2004.

If no budget resolution is enacted, Democrats say they may find some other way to set a spending target for the year. But such a plan would lack enforcement tools.

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