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Budget fights

This has been quite a week in Washington politics. If your living comes from talk and news as mine does, you were overjoyed at the characters and goings on of the week. There was no shortage of negative comments, people going overboard and yes, even the vice president nodding off during the president’s debt speech.

However, if you are a patriotic American this was not a good week. It was a sad reminder that this country is in a permanent election cycle and that most of what gets done and voted on is all in service of the next day that Americans go to the polls.

For starters, there were the votes. Three major issues loomed this week. The first was the continuing resolution, the bill that keeps the government running until Sept. 30. Speaker Boehner couldn’t get many of the newly elected tea-party folks on his side, so he reaped the benefits of the moderate Democrats, who voted for the compromise. Then it went to the Senate, where about 80 percent of the senators voted for the bill to pass. Politicians who negotiated the “deal” were touting the savings until the Congressional Budget Office came out with the numbers. It seems all these “savings” got wiped away by our defense spending. Tea-party congressional members shouted that they had been “had.” The reality is that when you have six months left on a budget, it is almost impossible to make cuts when contracts have been signed, agency budgets made and staff hired. It was stupid to think much could really happen half way into the fiscal year.

The second big vote came on the “budget resolution.” By law, Congress is supposed to outline the broad brush-spending (and revenue) plan for the next fiscal year, which begins on Oct. 1, 2011. This is supposed to be passed by both houses of Congress by April 15. In reality, it rarely happens on time. This year, the House met its obligations by passing the resolution, but the Senate left town before it got the bill. The Friday fights around this resolution were something right out of “Prime Ministers Questions ” on Sunday night C-Span. I’ve been covering Congress since 1993, and I don’t think I have heard such raucous behavior. Members were making noise and shouting, which is atypical for the House of Representatives.

The budget resolution that passed was Paul Ryan’s plan. It has no chance of passing in the Senate. Friday’s passage was after four other plans were rejected. The Black Caucus had its plan, the Progressive Caucus had its and so did the conservative Republicans (Republican Study Committee). The mainstream Democrats also came up with their plan. Only the Ryan plan made it, but not before some 2012 election focused maneuvering took place by the Democrats. Going down in a major loss was the Republican Study Committees amendment. The Democrats and mainstream Republicans voted against it, but suddenly the Democrats changed their votes to present. Why? The answers are in the politics of elections. Democrats wanted to show the real splits in the Republican Party by making the division in the right wing of the party clear for all to see. It was a smart tactic, but it will get lost on the electorate in all of the upcoming election rhetoric.

The Ryan plan will go into the sweet goodnight after the Senate’s “Gang of Six” (three Democrats and three Republicans) finishes budget negotiations over the Passover-Easter recess. The final budget resolution will be like most things political, a giant compromise. It will pass, if only as some huge document that gets the needed votes in the wee hours before the Oct. 1 deadline.

The mother of all fights, however, will be the upcoming debt ceiling fight. We were told that the government turns into a pumpkin around mid-May. However, due to accounting tricks, the government can limp along, not reaching the debt ceiling till early July. This debt ceiling will need the vote of Congress to authorize borrowing more money. Stopping the debt from growing is a promise on which many new members got elected to Congress. They promised no more borrowing and no more blank checks. It might have ensured their election, but now it is spooking foreign investment and Wall Street. How this gets handled and what deals are made will say a lot about how business gets done in Washington.

The debt-ceiling fight is going to be a precursor for the 2012 election. Much of what will be said will be heard in the presidential debates as well as the congressional races. Take notes during the debt-ceiling fight, and then you can “plug and play” during the election season. It will just be reruns.