Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad (D., N.D.) hosted what is likely to be the final budget "markup" hearing of his career on Wednesday.
Only it was not a real markup.
Senators were barred from offering amendments and did not cast any votes. Conrad did not even introduce a real budget, but rather the official recommendations proposed by the Bowles-Simpson fiscal commission in 2010.
In all likelihood, he suggested, lawmakers would not be able come to an agreement until after the November election. "It may be that all sides find it difficult to move off their fixed position before a national election," he said.
Conrad claimed "strong bipartisan support" for the recommendations. However, the U.S. House of Representatives recently rejected a measure based on the Bowles-Simpson report by the overwhelming margin of 382-38.
Conrad stunned observers Tuesday when he announced that he would not follow through on his expressed intentions to offer, mark up, and pass a Democratic budget resolution.
Senior Republican aides told the Washington Free Beacon that Conrad’s staff had "promised" them that a traditional markup—complete with votes and amendments—would take place and that the chairman would attempt to pass a budget out of committee.
If the committee did ultimately pass a budget resolution, Senate Rules would allow any Senator to place it on the calendar for a vote and allow lawmakers to offer multiple amendments subject to simple majority votes.
Many suspect that Conrad’s plan was derailed at the last minute by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) and other Senate Democrats, who did not wish to cast political difficult votes on health care, energy, taxes, and government waste just months before the 2012 election.
More than 20 Senate Democrats are up for reelection in November. Republicans need to pick up four seats to gain the majority.
"Something clearly changed," said one GOP aide. "I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Harry Reid shut it down."
"The Democratic conference murdered this idea," said another.
GOP members of the committee echoed this sentiment throughout the hearing, heaping praise on Conrad, who they said had been a tireless advocate for a comprehensive solution to the nation’s debt crisis.
"Chairman Conrad, I am sorry that your conference has prevented you from conducting a genuine Budget Committee mark-up," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), the top Republican on the committee. "I know you have fought within your party to fulfill the duties of this committee, but your leadership in the Senate has been explicit in saying they will not pass a budget."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) concurred, telling Conrad: "Clearly your heart is in the right place."
"The chairman is not the problem," Graham added. "The chairman is trying to be the solution."
Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas) told Conrad he sympathized. "You understand our country faces a looming financial crisis," he said. "Yet Harry Reid has shown no interest in letting the Senate complete one of its most fundamental duties."
Perhaps the most revealing remarks came from Sen. Mike Crapo (R., Idaho), who served with Conrad on the Bowles-Simpson commission and has since spent "hundreds and hundreds" of hours working closely with the budget chairman to develop a bipartisan deficit-reduction package.
"I looked forward a long time to this day," he told Conrad. "I’m discouraged that … although the proposal is being put forward, we are not going to be able to seriously act upon it."
Crapo lamented Conrad’s decision not to allow amendments—effectively delaying a final vote indefinitely—and asked him to reconsider. There are a number of significant fiscal reforms, Crapo argued, that the committee could pass immediately.
"We can make significant progress if we can simply have the opportunity in this committee," he said.
Conrad nodded in agreement.
The four-term North Dakota Democrat announced his retirement last year. Since then, he has gone to great lengths to draw attention to the looming debt crisis that awaits the country if politicians in Washington fail to offer a solution.
"History is going to judge whether we have the courage, character, and the vision to stand up for America’s future," Conrad said last year. "Those who take a walk, those who turn away, those who don’t have the gumption to stand up, are going to be judged very, very harshly."