The Senate’s chief referee has issued a key ruling against Majority Leader Harry Reid, Politico has learned — a move expected to bring unwanted election-year pressure on the Nevada Democrat to act on politically dicey budget bills.
Newly appointed Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, whom Reid recommended for the job, has decided that last summer’s deal on the debt ceiling and spending caps does not preclude the Senate from taking up other budget resolutions this year. The ruling could force vulnerable Democrats to cast tough votes that hurt them in November, a situation Reid and other leaders are eager to avoid as they work to protect their fragile majority.
The written opinion, shared late last week with a handful of Democratic and GOP senators, gives Republicans significantly more leverage to push for votes on budgets of their choosing. It could mean roll calls on Rep. Paul Ryan’s House-passed GOP budget plan and others offered by Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Democrats would gladly vote down the Ryan blueprint, which Obama described Tuesday as a “radical” vision that guts funding for Medicare and education.
But a version of President Barack Obama’s own $3.6 trillion budget proposal, which the House unanimously rejected last week, also could come to the Senate floor, ensuring an embarrassing replay of last year when not a single senator voted for the president’s budget.
The MacDonough ruling essentially means any senator can place a budget proposal on the Senate calendar. Reid still controls the floor and could choose not to bring them to a vote, though the political optics of such a move could be damaging.
Democratic aides have dismissed the ruling as irrelevant, arguing that the historic debt deal already serves as a legally binding budget. And they warned that votes on resolutions would take up valuable floor time, delaying important work on postal and cybersecurity reform, a small-business tax cut and appropriation bills.
More than anything, the MacDonough decision turns up the heat on retiring Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, who with Reid’s blessing first approached the parliamentarian and asked for her opinion on the matter.
Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, had vowed publicly that he would mark up a 2013 budget resolution in his committee this year. But behind the scenes he was making the case to MacDonough that the August enactment of the Budget Control Act meant that any proposed budgets would not automatically get placed on the Senate calendar to await action. Based on Senate precedent, if the Budget Committee has not produced a budget resolution by April 1, then any budget plan offered in the Senate is automatically put on the Senate calendar.
Reid has already signaled he has no plans to move a Democratic budget resolution to the floor. But if Conrad makes good on his word and marks up a budget, any senator could introduce the Democratic plan and put it on the calendar given MacDonough’s ruling.
Democrats fear going down that path. Only 51 votes are needed for the Senate to take up a budget resolution. Once that happens, senators can offer and require votes on unlimited amendments — a ritual often referred to as the budget “vote-a-rama.”
And Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who needs to win a net four Senate seats to take back the majority in November, could force his top Democratic targets — including Sens. Claire McCaskill, Jon Tester and Sherrod Brown — to vote to repeal all or parts of Obama’s health care law, approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline and other popular GOP proposals.
Democrats “clearly do not want to vote on a budget,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the former director of the Congressional Budget Office who now heads the conservative think tank American Action Forum. “They rejected the president’s budget last year, and I can’t imagine they want to be in that position again. And they haven’t passed a budget in three years when these issues of spending and deficits are paramount.
“There are Republicans who believe the House [budget] vote was difficult for them in an election year,” he added, “but at some point you have to do your job.”
On Jan. 24, Republicans marked the 1,000th day that the Democratic-led Senate had gone without passing a budget resolution. GOP aides said word of MacDonough’s ruling elicited cheers and high-fives in some Senate offices.
“Senate Democrats’ financial plan for America remains, to this day, a closely guarded secret, shielded from the press and the public,” one GOP aide said. Reid “has indicated that he would even keep a plan from his own budget chairman from reaching the floor of the Senate chamber. The message is clear: As long as Senate Democrats have the majority, there will be no congressional budget.”
Democratic leadership aides downplayed the significance of MacDonough’s decision, calling it “small potatoes.” Aside from the budget resolution dispute, the debt law already set discretionary spending levels for 2012 and 2013, they said.
“It would have been nice if this had gone our way, but it’s not really a big deal and doesn’t really affect our central argument one iota, which is we have a budget. Period. And that is the fundamental reason we don’t think we need to do a budget resolution,” a Democratic leadership aide said.
“We have a long list of important things we need to do to actually affect middle-class families and their daily lives,” he added. “We’re committed to the appropriations process, and taking up floor time — especially while the Budget Committee is marking something up — amounts to nothing but show votes. It’s a waste of time.”
Conrad spokesman Stu Nagurka said his boss still believes it would be useful to mark up a longer-term budget blueprint, and still intends to move forward in committee.
“His thinking on that has not changed,” said Nagurka, though he declined to say when Conrad might begin that process.
MacDonough, appointed in February as the Senate’s first female parliamentarian, did not return a phone call seeking comment. But given her dozen years in the parliamentarian’s office — charged with interpreting arcane Senate rules and refereeing disputes between the two parties — she probably wasn’t rattled by the task.
In her opinion, she describes “memos, arguments and participation” in meetings from the two sides, and sources said emails showed that top Democratic and GOP staffers from the budget and finance committees, as well as Reid’s office and Sen. Chuck Schumer’s Democratic Policy and Communications Center, were involved in the deliberations.
MacDonough wrote that it may have been the intent of the authors of the debt limit law to “shut off” the mechanism that automatically places budget resolutions on the calendar after April 1, but that there was no concrete evidence of that.
“The BCA contemplates the consideration of a budget resolution, yet one reading we have been urged to adopt would close off the means of effectuating such consideration with respect to a House budget resolution or any of the resolutions that any of the 100 Senators may introduce and have referred to committee,” MacDonough wrote in her opinion, a copy of which was obtained by POLITICO.
“Without language that is more precise on this matter, we are not inclined to remove these options for consideration from the Senate’s budget process.”