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Dems punt hard choices on Obama budget

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., (left) and House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., hold up their copies of the fiscal 2010 federal budget.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., (left) and House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., hold up their copies of the fiscal 2010 federal budget.

President Obama’s Democratic allies in Congress are taking only baby steps with his budget, putting off crucial decisions on his ambitious plans to expand health care, curb global warming and raise taxes on the wealthy.

Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and both Bushes all got far stronger assists from Congress on their first budgets. Nonetheless, Obama, is counting on votes approving budget outlines this week to give him some semblance of momentum.

“If we don’t pass the budget, it will empower those critics who don’t want to see anything getting done,” Obama told House Democrats on Monday, according to a House aide who required anonymity to reveal what was said at the closed-door meeting.

Risk-averse Democrats, however, are merely kicking the can down the road rather than using the budget to give a real push to the president’s agenda. On health care, global warming and even Obama’s signature “Making Work Pay” tax cut, the pending House and Senate budget plans offer no clues as to how those big ideas might advance.

The House and Senate are expected to pass separate versions of the budget resolution by week’s end, then reconcile differences after their spring break.

Budget resolutions are not law. They aren’t signed by the president. They are nonbinding outlines paving the way for future legislation. Often, they only determine the amount of money that can be spent on departments’ operating budgets that Congress must pass each year.

But they are an early measure of political strength. And especially in the first year of a presidency – when most of the heavy lifting is done on a president’s agenda – they have far more importance.

Votes taken during budget resolution debates can put members on record in favor of particular policies – tax cuts or increases, cost curbs on federal health care programs, or welfare reform, for example. Presidents use political capital in winning such votes, and the lawmakers casting them tend to buy into the ideas involved.

At a comparable stage in 1981, Reagan broke the back of the Democratic House leadership in winning a key budget vote in favor of his tax cut agenda.

And in 1993, debate on Clinton’s deficit-cutting plan put his Democratic allies on record in support of higher taxes. That made subsequent votes to actually impose those tax hikes easier.

Budget resolutions also ratified a key 1990 budget pact between President George H.W. Bush and Democrats in which Bush broke his “read my lips” pledge not to raise taxes.

Key Senate budget votes in 2001 and 2003 limited the size of George W. Bush’s tax cuts – but made sure they advanced.

To be sure, Obama’s plans for global warming and health care are still so fuzzy that it’s difficult to translate them into numbers in a congressional budget plan. And rather than muscle Republicans now, it could make sense for Democrats to hold off on detailed assumptions in hopes of building bipartisan consensus later.

Still, the budget proposal that Obama sent to Congress in February did present some difficult choices:

• Fewer itemized tax deductions for the wealthy, providing money to help buy health care insurance for tens of millions of Americans who don’t have it.

• Cuts in government payments to insurance companies and health care providers.

• An expensive and highly controversial plan to combat global warming through a “cap-and-trade” scheme that calls for auctioning off pollution permits for nearly $650 billion. The Senate, during budget debate Tuesday, voted to instead devote any revenues from the scheme to help consumers pay higher gasoline and electric bills that energy companies will pass on to them.

Both the House and Senate budget writers, for the most part, ignored all of Obama’s big ideas when crafting their fiscal plans, sapping his agenda of momentum.

Indeed, key lawmakers are already playing “taps” over his proposals to chip away at wealthy people’s ability to deduct charitable donations and mortgage interest at higher rates.

Instead, they designed a host of so-called reserve funds that give some modest procedural help to Obama initiatives but do nothing concrete to really advance them.

As a result, lawmakers can cast symbolic votes in favor of Obama’s agenda – even if those votes don’t say anything about the depth of that commitment. They can at the same time say they are voting for Obama’s agenda even as they distance themselves from key elements of it, like his tax increases or the higher energy bills that would result from his global warming curbs.

The detail-free approach protects lawmakers from difficult votes. Its defenders also say it provides lawmakers with leeway when writing follow-up legislation.

“The strength of reserve funds, from my perspective, is you give the committees full flexibility to write the best legislation they can,” Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad told reporters.

But flexibility can also indicate a lack of direction. How will Democrats find $1 trillion or more over the next decade to pay for health care reforms? Is Obama’s cap-and-trade initiative too unpopular to advance?

For now, there are only guesses.

“They’re not putting their cards on the table,” said GOP lobbyist Rich Meade. He knows how this works; he’s a former staff director of the House Budget Committee.

Andrew Taylor of The Associated Press has covered Congress since 1990.

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