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House, Senate Leaders Set Conference on Budget Resolution

By David Clarke, CQ Staff

May 3, 2007 -- House and Senate negotiators have made enough progress toward a joint budget resolution that they plan to formally meet next week in hopes of reaching a final agreement in time for appropriations bills to start moving on the House floor the week of May 14.

The House will appoint conferees May 7 on the fiscal 2008 budget resolution. Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said the Senate would soon follow, clearing the way for a formal conference meeting.

The House Rules Committee was expected Thursday to approve a rule for consideration of the Senate budget resolution (S Con Res 21). This step is being taken to overcome potential parliamentary problems and objections to heading to conference by unanimous consent. The House rule will clear the way for House conferees to be appointed.

The key sticking point between the House and Senate budget blueprints has been how to handle a Senate plan that proposes using a projected $132 billion fiscal 2012 surplus to extend some tax cuts and to help offset a $50 billion plan to expand a children's health insurance program.

House Budget Chairman John M. Spratt Jr., D-S.C., and members of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog coalition oppose the idea because it would violate the House's pay-as-you-go rule. Yet the Senate adopted the amendment offered by Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., on a 97-to-1 vote and Conrad has said the plan must be in final budget plan. Baucus has said if a final agreement does not include his proposal it may be tough to win adoption of a joint budget resolution in the Senate.

The budget resolution is non-binding and the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance panels would have to write legislation to extend the tax provisions. That is unlikely to occur this year.

Still, House Democrats want to closely follow the pay-as-you-go rules they have championed as evidence of fiscal responsibility and do not want to go on the record as supporting the use of surpluses that have not materialized for tax cuts.

Spratt said final decisions have not been made but an idea being discussed is to include in the joint budget resolution a provision, called a "trigger," which would allow a surplus to be used as an offset for tax cuts only if the Congressional Budget Office projects that surplus will materialize in the next fiscal year or two. The idea is that the trigger would apply only in the House.

Conrad said he did not want to discuss details because "this thing is so delicate I don't want to say anything to put it at risk."

A trigger may work to garner the support of Blue Dog conservatives in the House.

"I think we can find some compromise language," said Allen Boyd, D-Fla., a Blue Dog leader and a member of the Budget Committee. "I suspect a trigger will be part of that."

Regarding how to handle the Baucus amendment, House Ways and Means Chairman Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., said, "I don't think these things are resolved on the House side." Yet he added: "I'm satisfied as long as we're not constrained in what we want to do."

The pressure to reach agreement on a joint budget resolution centers on the blueprint's role in the appropriations process; it sets the cap for discretionary spending that the Appropriations committees then divide among their 12 bills.

The House-passed budget resolution (H Con Res 99) would provide appropriators with about $7 billion more in spending than would the Senate budget resolution. Resolving the difference is not expected to be too difficult once conferees meet.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., wants to begin advancing spending bills on the House floor the week of May 14. That schedule may be pushed back, however, depending on when a final budget agreement is reached and because the war spending bill is a priority for leaders.

To advance a spending bill on the floor the week of May 14, a subcommittee and full committee markup of a spending bill would probably have to occur the week of May 7. That could prove difficult.

Also left unresolved is whether to include in a final budget resolution a reconciliation instruction for the House and Senate education panels to write legislation reauthorizing higher education programs.

The House budget blueprint includes an instruction to the House Education and Labor Committee to produce legislation saving $75 million over five years. Conrad said Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., has expressed support for the House plan.

The instruction is more important in the Senate, where it provides procedural protections for legislation to move on a fast-track through that chamber.

Conrad opposes using these protections for legislation that is not primarily focused on reducing the budget deficit. He said earlier this week he will not change his position on the issue but acknowledged he might not get his way in the final resolution.

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