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Budget woes? Just don't pass one

House Democrats may skip or delay a budget resolution because of the record deficit and midterm elections.

May 22, 2010|By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — Facing the uncomfortable reality that the federal government's 2011 budget shows record levels of red ink, congressional Democrats may resolve the politically thorny situation by simply refusing to pass a budget resolution this election year.

With voters in no mood to hear about Washington's $1.3-trillion deficit, some moderate and conservative Democrats say they would rather sit this one out. They have found common cause with liberal colleagues who don't want to pass spending cuts, especially while the economy is still struggling.

"I'm not going to vote for anything with that magnitude [of deficit]," said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), a freshman running for reelection in the fall.

Connolly believes Congress should hold off on a vote until President Obama's bipartisan debt commission delivers its recommendations in a report due by year's end. He thinks his constituents will understand.

"Name one person who won or lost an election because they didn't get a budget resolution passed," Connolly said. "It's totally inside baseball."

Sidestepping a vote will not bring the government to a halt or shut down services. The resolution is only a blueprint that sets annual spending caps and provides direction to congressional appropriators.

It also could endorse Obama's budget priorities, such as ending the George W. Bush-era tax cuts for wealthier Americans and imposing a three-year freeze on discretionary spending in areas other than national security.

Republicans are thrilled with this state of affairs, and portray it as another example of Democrats' fiscal irresponsibility. They note that the House has never failed to pass a budget resolution since the Congressional Budget Act was adopted in 1974.

Congress as a whole has failed to approve a budget four times. Republicans themselves failed to get a budget resolution that both chambers could agree on when they controlled Congress in 2006.

Yet underscoring the debate is another reality: that deficit spending has been on the rise for years.

Deficits have soared as Obama and congressional Democrats approved recession spending on initiatives — extended unemployment insurance and funding for the cash-strapped states — that many economists say have helped avert a deeper depression.

But the annual deficit passed $1 trillion for the first time in fiscal 2010, causing some lawmakers to gulp.

Voting on a budget that would continue that trend as midterm elections approach is a tough task, especially in a year of anti-incumbent sentiments.

Yet Republicans are not about to let Democrats duck the issue. The House Republican leader, John A. Boehner of Ohio, sends out almost daily reminders that the budget resolution remains undone.

"Democrats have no budget in place," one Boehner statement read last week. "They want to continue the out-of-control spending spree that is scaring the hell out of the American people."

Congress missed the April 15 deadline to pass the resolution, which is common.

"It's pretty incomprehensible you wouldn't have a budget resolution with [Democrats controlling] the presidency and the Congress," charged Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee.

"The reason is obvious: They're running up such huge deficits and adding so much to debt, they don't want to expose it to the American people."

Budget Committee Chairman Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) plans to press colleagues at their weekly luncheon on Tuesday to pass the resolution, even though the window to do so is tightening before legislators leave for a summer of campaigning.

"The timing is difficult," Conrad said.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma) believes Congress needs to take up the issue.

"People will think we're not doing our work," she said. "We spend their tax dollars. They want to know how we're spending it."

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

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