Senate Democrats delay action on budget plan

May 19, 2011 - 5:43 PM

Debt Budget

From left, Sens. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., Richard Durbin, D-Ill., Kent Conrad, D-N.D., Mark Warner, D-Va., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho., speak to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday, May 18, 2011.(AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate's top Democrat on budget matters said Thursday that he's holding off on advancing a Democrats-only budget plan.

Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said he's waiting to see the results of bipartisan talks involving Vice President Joe Biden on legislation to allow the government to borrow to pay its bills.

Conrad said the annual congressional budget process might be needed to expedite passage of the so-called debt limit measure without threat of a filibuster by Republicans. Under Capitol Hill's arcane budget process, the annual congressional budget resolution is a nonbinding measure that can set the broad parameters for future legislation. The budget measure and a special follow-up bill are the only legislation that can't be blocked by a filibuster.

Conrad pointed to budget pacts in 1990 and 1997 that advanced under the special fast-track rules. Democrats used it last year to help pass President Barack Obama's health care overhaul measure, while Republicans used it to pass Bush-era tax cuts.

Most years, however, the annual budget debate in Congress is a predictably partisan exercise that has little impact on the nation's fiscal picture. A House GOP plan calling for overhauling Medicare so that future beneficiaries would receive subsidies to purchase health insurance rather than a guarantee that the government would pay doctor and hospital bills has sparked a Democratic offensive that could help the party rebound from last year's midterm drubbing.

Lawmakers in both parties are demanding spending cuts as the price for raising the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling. The Biden negotiations — and later talks likely to involve Obama himself — are likely to last the weeks or months heading up to an Aug. 2 deadline to avoid a first-ever default on U.S. obligations.

"The results of those negotiations may need to be included in a budget resolution that would be offered in the weeks ahead," Conrad said.

Republicans say Democrats should go ahead and write a budget now to show the public how they would tackle out-of-control budget deficits.

Many Democrats want to avoid the tough votes that advancing a Democrats-only budget would guarantee. But they're threatening to bring the controversial House GOP measure to a vote in an effort to put the political squeeze on Republicans.