Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad (D., N.D.) will not draft a Democratic budget before the 2012 election, he announced Tuesday.
Instead of going through the traditional markup process in the committee, Conrad said he would introduce the 2010 report drafted by the Bowles-Simpson fiscal commission, and then indefinitely delay a vote in order to allow time for "negotiations."
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In all likelihood, Conrad told reporters on Capitol Hill, lawmakers would not come to an agreement until after the November election.
Conrad said his intention was to offer "a blueprint to build a bipartisan agreement." A traditional budget, authored and supported by Democrats, he added, was "probably not going to help."
Senate Democrats have yet to offer a formal budget resolution in nearly three years, in violation of federal law.
One GOP aide told the Washington Free Beacon that Republicans on the budget committee were completely caught off guard by Conrad’s announcement, as the
chairman’s staff had been coordinating with staffers in preparation for a full markup session complete with multiple votes on amendments.
The aide suspected that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) had "pulled the plug" on a traditional markup in an effort to shield Democratic members, a number of whom are facing tough reelection fights in 2012, from casting a series of politically difficult votes on issues such as health care, energy, taxes, and government waste.
"Something clearly changed," said the aide. "I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Harry Reid shut it down."
Reid has made no secret of the fact that he does not think Democrats should offer a budget. Doing so, he has said, would be "foolish."
Reports have indicated that some Democratic members were reluctant to cast votes on a budget resolution that was likely to include significant tax increases and reforms to entitlement programs.
The Bowles-Simpson report contains both, though in less specific terms than a traditional budget resolution. Conrad’s announcement means his Democratic colleagues will no longer be compelled to cast any votes.
Conrad said the plan was a good starting point because it enjoys "strong bipartisan support, both in Congress and across the nation."
The claim is dubious given that the House of Representatives recently rejected a plan modeled after Bowles-Simpson by the overwhelming margin of 382-38.
Conrad said the House vote was a "very instructive" indication that lawmakers are unlikely to come to a bipartisan agreement until shortly after the 2012 election, when a "lame duck" Congress must address two major policy issues—the expiration of the so-called Bush tax cuts and the scheduled implementation of an automatic $1.2 trillion spending cut that would disproportionately affect the defense budget.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), the top Republican on the budget committee, was not pleased.
"Chairman Conrad’s stunning announcement, forced on him by his party, is a defining moment in 2012 and a national embarrassment for a Senate majority that is unable to meet the great challenge of our time," he said in a statement.
Conrad’s decision to delay action until after the election is hardly consistent with his rhetoric over the past several years. A self-professed fiscal hawk, he has sought to portray himself as a tireless advocate for a meaningful solution to the debt crisis.
"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."