Conrad’s Last Gambit for a Grand Budget Deal
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The Fiscal Times
April 19, 2012

In a swan song of sorts, on Wednesday Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., unveiled his final comprehensive budget plan before retiring at the end of the year.

Few can match Conrad’s understanding of the budget process. “No one in the Congress understands fiscal problems more than Sen. Conrad,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters this week. However, in an era of partisan gridlock and political posturing, Conrad decided not to rebut the House Republicans’ election-year call for more tax relief and deep domestic and health care spending cuts. Instead, he introduced a variation of the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson fiscal commission plan for long-term deficit reduction.

Conrad said he needed to do something to force the two parties “out of their fixed positions” as they head into a tough fall election. “TheFiscal Commission budget plan provides a comprehensive and balanced deficit reduction framework that we can build on,” Conrad said. “It is not perfect, but it does represent a middle-ground, consensus solution to the country’s fiscal imbalance. It brings the deficit down, but does so in a responsible, fair, and balanced way. It protects the most vulnerable. It phases in changes to avoid harming the economy.”  

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He acknowledged that his strategy would disappoint or anger lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. “But,” he said, “I am focused on getting a positive result for the American people. And I believe the best way to do that is to start in the middle, with a plan that already has strong bipartisan support, both in Congress and across the nation.”

But a budget deal is unlikely to emerge from the cacophony of debate on Capitol Hill this year. Congress has not passed a concurrent budget resolution in the past three years but instead has operated under a series of patchwork stopgap spending resolutions.

Late last month, House Republicans pushed through a fiscal 2013 budget and tax plan crafted by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin that offered plenty of GOP  campaign slogans – including deep tax cuts, entitlement reform and protecting defense spending – but no common ground for a budget deal with Democrats and President Obama. The Ryan budget, approved 228 to 191 roughly along party lines, would cut the top tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent, would recast Medicare and Medicaid, and would impose sweeping cuts in domestic programs for middle- and lower income Americans.

Ryan, the House Budget Committee Chairman, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp of Michigan, and other GOP House leaders began moving ahead this week with plans for implementing the budget and tax overhaul proposals, although Senate Democrats say the approach will go nowhere. House members are equally as adamant that the Bowles-Simpson approach is also a non-starter. Reps. James Cooper (D-Tenn.) and Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) put a variation of the Bowles-Simpson plan to a vote before the House last month. It was crushed on a vote of 382 to 38. Twenty-two of the supporters were Democrats, while 16 were Republicans.

Republicans were overwhelmingly opposed to the original plan because it included $2 trillion in new taxes – as well as expiration of the Bush era tax cuts. It would also cut $800 billion from defense.  Democrats were unhappy with it because it included deep Medicare and Social Security cuts along with large tax increases to address the long-term deficit. 

Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.