Dueling Budgets and a Window for a Grand Bargain

Beyond the ideological fracas is the last best chance for a grand bargain this summer.

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Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Senator Patty Murray

Budgets are usually ideological documents, used more for elections in recent years than for actual legislating. This week, both the House Republicans and Senate Democrats are expected to introduce budgets. While neither is expected to pass the other chamber and both present inherent risks to their own parties, this year, they may actually matter.

Senate Democrats, led by Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, this week will unveil their first budget in four years. There are a lot of reasons why Senate Dems have eschewed their constitutional duty: fears that Republicans will use reconciliation — a budget process that requires only a 51-vote threshold — to strip Obamacare or the financial-reregulation bill, or use amendments to embarrass Democrats on any number of issues. But perhaps the biggest reason was to protect vulnerable Democrats through two tough electoral cycles where Dems risked losing the Senate.

In 2014, Democrats still face an uphill battle: 21 Democratic seats are up, seven of them in states won by Mitt Romney in 2012. Murray, who last cycle headed up the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is responsible for electing Democrats to the Senate, is hyperaware of the dangers of forcing her colleagues to support an ideological document too far to the left. To that end, she’s endeavored to craft a moderate budget plan that envisions $1 trillion in new savings in addition to $1 trillion in new revenue over the next decade. The problem is: it fails to balance the budget even in the longest projections decades down the road, opening up Democrats to criticism that they aren’t serious about tackling deficits. And $1 trillion in revenue is a tough vote for any of those red-state Democrats.

In a dig at Murray, one of the first things House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan did on Tuesday at the rollout of his budget was to invite President Obama and the Democrats to join Republicans in “balancing the budget.” Ryan’s plan does so in a drastic manner, slicing $4.6 trillion in spending over the next decade by, among other things, eliminating Obamacare and turning Medicare into a voucher system. The new budget doesn’t differ much from previous budgets Ryan has produced for the past six years, and so far Republicans haven’t paid a price at the polls for voting annually to do away with one of the most popular government programs, Medicare. But that risk remains, especially as surveys increasingly show public support to solve budget shortfalls using a mix of savings and revenue, as suggested by Democrats.

Despite the fact that neither bill is expect to pass the other chamber, the passage of both budgets this year opens the door to reconciliation. Essentially this process entails Murray, Ryan and other budget experts getting together and passing a compromise budget document: no small challenge given the their vast differences, but the key to this is they can pick and choose areas of agreement rather than tackling everything. The product is deemed “privileged” in both chambers, making it filibuster-proof. In years past, big pieces of legislation have been loaded on the back of reconciliation such as the last deficit reduction acts of 1984 and 1993, the Bush tax cuts and parts of Obamacare.

This time around, Obama has again been calling for a grand bargain, courting Republican and Democratic members alike in three separate trips to the Hill this week. “I still believe that compromise is possible,” Obama said on Saturday in his weekly radio address. “I still believe we can come together to do big things. And I know there are leaders on the other side who share that belief.” There is a window for such a deal this summer when the debt ceiling comes up along with legislation for funding the federal government for the next fiscal year, which starts on Sept. 1. For the past two rounds — the sequester and the continuing resolution to fund the government from March 27 to Sept. 1 — House Republicans have held their fire so as to approach the summer fight on strong footing. For hints of what that deal might resemble, don’t look at Ryan’s or Murray’s budgets but the President’s long-overdue budget expected out later this month. That will most likely form the basis of whatever bargain there is to be had.

After too many failed attempts and false starts, so much distrust and backstabbing, is a grand bargain still possible? With the roadblock of Obama’s re-election out of the way and the next election more than 18 months away, this is the last best window for many years to come.