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Analysis: Democrats running Congress no more successful than GOP in getting budget in on time

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Posted: September 29, 2007 3:48 p.m.
Updated: October 14, 2007 5:00 a.m.
    WASHINGTON — The most basic job of Congress is to pass the bills that pay the costs of running the government. After criticizing Republicans for falling down on the job last year, Democrats now are the ones stumbling.
    The government’s new budget year begins Monday, but Congress has not completed even one of the dozen spending bills appropriating money for the day-to-day operations of 15 Cabinet departments.
    President Bush has lobbed veto threat after veto threat at Democratic spending bills because, taken as a whole, they would break his budget by $23 billion or more. Though Bush is sagging in the polls, his threats have majority Democrats tied in knots.
    Bush chided them Saturday in signing a bill that prevents a government shutdown and gives lawmakers 48 days more days to complete the budget work.
    ‘‘Earlier this year, congressional leaders promised to show that they could be responsible with the people’s money. Unfortunately they seem to have chosen the path of higher spending,’’ the president said in his weekly radio address.
    This is hardly the first time that Congress has fallen behind schedule. Last year, when Republicans ran Congress, they gave up on the budget altogether and forced Democrats to finish it on Valentine’s Day in February — 4 1/2 months late.
    Now it is Democrats, after roasting Republicans for the way they botched their budget work, who are vulnerable to criticism that they are doing no better. Republicans are happy to oblige.
    ‘‘It is deja vu all over again,’’ said Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., who a year ago was chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
    He quoted the current chairman, Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., as blasting Republicans in the past for ‘‘failing to meet even the most basic and minimal expectations that the country has for it by way of doing our routine business.’’
    Like last year, most of the Democrats’ appropriations failings can be blamed on the Senate, which has passed just four of the 12 spending bills.
    Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has devoted lots of debate time to Iraq, immigration and a defense policy bill at the expense of the nuts and bolts work of passing spending bills.
    Lewis said ‘‘the failure of the appropriations process can be laid squarely at the feet of the present Senate majority leader.’’
    The Senate’s top Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said spending bills ‘‘are our first responsibility, not our last.’’ He added, ‘‘We’ve had plenty of votes on other things — nearly 30 votes on Iraq. We should be making room for other things.’’
    Reid said Friday he hopes to complete two more bills this coming week, before the Senate takes a vacation. He blamed Bush and GOP opposition to nonrelated bills for the delay.
    ‘‘As you know, there’s controversy with the president over his threats to veto all these bills,’’ Reid said. ‘‘We know we should have gotten to them sooner, but we’ve had 48 filibusters we’ve had to deal with this year which has slowed things down significantly.’’
    It long has been assumed that the Bush administration and Democrats would find themselves in a legislative train wreck that would not get resolved until late in the fall. Even in years when one party runs both Capitol Hill and the White House, Congress invariably needs extra time to complete its budget work.
    But Democrats raised expectations in last year’s campaign that they would do a better job running Congress than Republicans had.
    The four bills that have passed the Senate are in House-Senate talks, including the homeland security measure and a veterans bill. The White House has backed off a veto threat on the veterans bill and Democrats are confident they can win an override vote on the homeland security measure if it contains $3 billion sought by Republicans for a fence along the U.S.-Mexican border.
    Republicans believe they can stick with Bush to sustain vetoes on the remaining bills. Democrats see little point in sending bill after bill to him to get vetoed in a fight the White House relishes
    Bush has absorbed much criticism from conservative voters for failing to veto a single spending bill in his first six years in office. Many Republicans want a series of vetoes that would allow the party to reclaim its reputation as the party of smaller government.
    Just as President Clinton won many of his battles with Republicans over the budget, Bush has great leverage so long as GOP lawmakers stand with him. That is the biggest reason Democrats would prefer to negotiate.
    ‘‘The president needs to put down his veto pen and pick up the telephone,’’ said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. ‘‘Our differences ... are relatively minor. We need to work out those differences, rather than engage in political posturing.’’
    Democrats have some leverage, too. They are holding back action of Bush’s $189 billion war request and can delay also delay the Pentagon’s nonwar budget bill until the White House agrees to talks on domestic spending.
    Both sides see the Pentagon spending bill, with a $40 billion increase for the military, as the engine that will power legislation encompassing all of the uncompleted bills into law — maybe by Christmas.
    ———
    EDITOR’S NOTE — Andrew Taylor has covered budget issues in Congress since 1997.

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