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Key US Senators Quietly Crafting Plan For Budget Talks January 12, 2007

Posted by notapundit in Congress, Politics, US News.

By John Godfrey

WASHINGTON (Dow Jones)–Two key senators said Thursday they are working quietly to craft a plan to nudge the White House and congressional leaders into budget talks this year.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and former Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., came up with the idea while on a congressional trip to South America last month.

Both have been fiscal hawks for years and Gregg last year pushed the idea of a budget commission akin to the U.S. Base Closing Commission.

Rumors of their efforts surfaced Wednesday and on Thursday morning Conrad confirmed them.

“Sen. Gregg and I have had lengthy discussions about the enormous fiscal challenges facing the country and our desire that we enter into a process to be able to address those issues and to do it this year,” Conrad said at the beginning of a Budget Committee hearing on the nation’s long-term fiscal outlook Thursday morning.

“Obviously, whether or not that goes forward is (decided) at a higher pay grade than ours,” Conrad said, noting that both President George W. Bush and the leadership of Congress would have to endorse the plan for it to move ahead.

“We’ve made some progress on how we might approach this,” Gregg said, but he added “it’s premature to start talking about this because you undermine the process if you start talking about it too soon.”

Many of the pieces necessary for such a plan to work are in place, not the least of which is the urgency of the situation.

Workers from the Baby Boom generation are about to retire, which in turn will cause a drain of government resources of epic proportions.

By way of comparison, there are currently 35 million retirees in the U.S. But when the Baby Boom tsunami peaks, nearly 80 million Americans will be in retirement.

Lawmakers concerned about the budget are leading the right committees, including not only the House and Senate budget committees, but also those heading Congress tax and spending committees, too. And voters are expressing growing dismay at Congress’ inaction.

And perhaps most importantly a Republican is in the White House, while Democrats control Congress, giving both parties political cover if a deal is reached.

Bush and his staff “appreciate the need to do something here, appreciate that the window is only go to be open briefly, and appreciate that this has to be fully bipartisan with everything on the table,” Gregg said.

But still there are pieces out of place.

Voters may be concerned, but haven’t expressed any willingness to accept the tax increases or spending cuts needed to address those concerns.

Trust and flexibility are needed for such negotiations to work, but distrust between Congress and the White House is at an all-time high. And, neither has had much practice with flexibility in recent years.

Even the idea of a budget summit prompts an immediate and negative reaction among lawmakers.

Both Republicans and Democrats have reason to be gun shy.

Republicans remember the 1990 budget talks at Andrews Air Force Base, where George H.W. Bush agreed to renege on a campaign promise to never raise taxes. Most Republicans think that decision cost him his bid for reelection in 1992.

And the specter of former Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, D-Pa., still hangs over Democrats.

Margolies-Mezvinsky was one of 34 Democratic incumbents defeated in 2004 after voting for a budget agreement reached with President Bill Clinton, a fellow Democrat, in 2003.

“We all know that something has got to be done. And, we all know that some group has got to come up with a plan,” Conrad said. “I just know that when you use that word, ‘summit’, people have an adverse reaction.”

Still Conrad and Gregg are pressing ahead.

“We both feel very strongly here that you are not going to get anywhere unless it’s totally bipartisan, substantive and has the players in the room,” Gregg said.

By John Godfrey, Dow Jones Newswires


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