Reid’s Shrewd Plan: No Budget, No GOP Advantage
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The Fiscal Times
January 29, 2013

In late April 2010, then-Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., boasted that the upper chamber would quickly take up his committee’s new budget blueprint that would take a big chunk out of the deficit. “This budget is fiscally responsible and provides a solid framework for accelerating our nation’s economic recovery and restoring our fiscal strength,” Conrad declared.

That was the last thing anybody ever heard about it.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, eying a tough reelection campaign for himself in Nevada and a handful of other Democrats, blocked Conrad from bringing the budget to the Senate floor for a vote. Republicans were poised to offer scores of amendments to force Democrats into making unpopular votes that could be used against them in 30-second attack ads, and Reid wasn’t about to give them an opening. 

“The budget process – like much else in the Senate – had spiraled out of control and was nothing more than a day’s worth of voting on highly politically charged amendments,” recalled Jim Manley, Reid’s chief spokesman at the time. “Reid decided he’d try to protect his members from taking some of those tough votes.”

And that was only the prelude.

Two years later, the Senate still had not passed a budget, as Reid played a game of political rope-a-dope, absorbing sharp criticism from angry Republicans and deficit-minded Democrats like Conrad. 

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, railed at Reid for his “unconscionable stance that no budget – even his chairman’s – should receive consideration on the Senate floor. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., just last week noted, “The last time [the Senate] passed a budget, the iPad hadn’t even been introduced.”

Reid  abruptly abandoned his obstructionist tactics last week after House Republicans pledged to suspend the national debt ceiling for four months – and the threat of a default on the U.S. debt --if the Senate finally passed a budget and engage in serious negotiations over spending and entitlement and tax reform.   The Senate is expected to approve the House-passed offer on Wednesday and send it to President Obama for his signature.

To an average American, it’s baffling that the Senate would go more than three years without putting a budget proposal to a vote. But some budget and policy experts say that Reid’s strategy was remarkably shrewd. It enabled him to protect his Senate colleagues from pointless but potentially dangerous votes on a raft of budget and tangential issues, while at the same time establishing a beachhead to defend President Obama’s programs and policies from a Republican assault in the House.

As Reid and other Democrats were facing sharp challenges from Tea Party conservatives in 2010, Reid attempted to inoculate his majority from divisive votes on budget amendments that ranged from deficit reduction and Medicare cuts to immigration, abortion and a raft of other social issues.

Republicans wrested control of the House from the Democrats that year on a wave of conservative activism, but  Senate Democrats lost only four seats and held on to a 55-seat majority, including two independents.

The Senate became Obama’s legislative refuge on Capitol Hill and a major roadblock to House Republican efforts to push through Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget plans in 2011 and 2012 for overhauling Medicare and Medicaid and repealing the president’s health care reform law—moves that Democrats claimed would shred the social safety net.

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.