Beltway catfight over $91 Billion

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Last week, Tea Party Patriots highlighted some of the political gamesmanship going on between the House and the Senate over the 2014 budget. Yesterday, according to the Washington Post Wonk Blog, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is calling the GOP’s bluff:

Some fun news this morning for budget wonks. “Leader Reid is very likely to ask for consent to move to conference [this] morning,” e-mails a Democratic Senate aide. “We will see if Senate Republicans who have talked about regular order will actually stick to that and allow us to move to conference or if they will drag their feet and provide cover for House Republicans who want to drag their feet on negotiations.”

This is good to hear, though Senator Reid deserves no credit for doing so – he has purposely ignored his legal duties to pass a budget for the last three fiscal years. And he is only following the law now because it is politically advantageous.

Oddly, though, it is now Republicans who appear unwilling to go through “normal order.” From the Wonk Blog’s post:

Regular order has achieved a totemic significance on the right. Bringing it back by forcing Senate Democrats to pass a budget was, in fact, the lure that House Speaker John Boehner and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan used to convince their colleagues to raise the debt ceiling.

“The good news is that we now have a vehicle for regular order,” Ryan exulted in March. “Democrats derailed the budget process when they gave up governing a few years ago. Nearly four years without a budget. We brought them back in the game this spring. That is a good thing.”

But a funny thing happened after Senate Democrats passed their budget: House Republicans, it seemed, weren’t that eager to move to regular order after all. There’s been no evident interest in the next move, which is appointing conferees to begin reconciling the two budgets. “It seems to us they want to slow this down, keep it in the back rooms, keep it quiet, because there’s no advantage to them in having a formal public process,” said one Democratic aide.

In fact, Republicans see a disadvantage in a formal public process. “If you appoint conferees and after 20 legislative days there’s no agreement, the minority has the right to offer motions to instruct, which become politically motivated bombs that show up on the House floor,” Boehner told reporters.

According to Talking Points Memo, the Speaker still sees the GOP as wanting to do “normal order” on the budget – even though what Republicans are calling “normal order” is slightly different than what the party has called for over the last few years:

The informal conversations, between House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) aren’t uncommon. As one House GOP leadership aide points out, the last time the House and Senate unified their budgets was May 2009, under Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), after plenty of private negotiating.

But that’s not the regular order Boehner has been demanding since shortly after President Obama’s re-election.

Democrats in both the House and Senate enjoy watching the GOP struggle to blur the difference between its simultaneous but incompatible demands for regular order and informal negotiations.

So what’s going on here? Is the Speaker backtracking on what his spokesperson and another GOP aide told Tea Party Patriots last week?

According to Speaker Beohner’s spokesman Michael Steel, however, Politico’s reporting is incorrect. The Speaker does indeed want a conference:

While there are stark differences between the House Republican budget, which balances, and the Senate Democratic one, which doesn’t, we are very hopeful that the talks between Chairmen Ryan and Murray are productive and will lead to a formal conference. That’s our goal, and we hope it’s the goal of Senate Democrats as well.

Another GOP aide agreed with Steel:

House Republicans want an agreement, and conversations are continuing to build a framework for constructive negotiations. But until we have that framework, establishing a conference committee won’t bridge the significant differences between the two sides.

In the end, both sides have strengths and weaknesses in this discussion. Democrats are correct to note the GOP’s “normal order” is not traditional normal order. On the other hand, the Democrats are the ones who have ignored normal order for several years, thus not allowing them any high moral ground in 2013.

On the GOP side, the party is indeed not doing the “normal order” it has called for. On the other hand, given the high-spending, high-taxing Senate budget – it spends $91 billion more than the House budget in 2014 alone – the traditional “normal order” almost certainly won’t be productive. Thus, it makes sense to have informal discussions before going through the public process, to make sure the American people are properly served by a productive public debate, not just political gamesmanship.

The Wonk Blog sums it all up nicely:

But that’s all political theatre. However it works out, the point is more than proven. What’s holding up a budget deal isn’t disagreements over the process. It’s disagreements over the budget.

And that’s the unfortunate “skinny.” The House and Senate are having a catfight over $91 billion. A lot of money anywhere except the Beltway, where it’s merely 2.4% of the federal budget.