WASHINGTON Republicans have been pressuring Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad to offer up a budget plan, and on Wednesday, he gave them one - sort of.
Conrad, a fiscal hawk who is due to retire early next year, will try to revive a 2010 fiscal commission's mix of recommendations to slash federal deficits through tax hikes and spending cuts. But no votes on the plan are expected before November's election.
His committee began a review of a modified version of the so-called Bowles-Simpson plan - viewed by many centrists as a model for bipartisan pragmatism - but the panel's "mark-up" session will not feature the usual amendments or a vote.
Instead, the Democratic budget blueprint for fiscal 2013, which starts on October 1, will sit in a legislative holding pattern, possibly until voters decide in November on the direction they want the country to go.
The Democratic-focused budget is not what many had expected, especially as Conrad said as recently as Sunday that he would stage a committee vote on a budget, even if party leaders were not inclined to consider it in the full Senate.
But the effort allows him to say that he's started the budgeting process without exposing Democratic senators in tight re-election races to a controversial vote on a budget that would raise taxes. And it attempts to put the Bowles-Simpson plan, which he helped craft, back into play for consideration at the end of this year when a number of major tax breaks expire.
"I know that taking this route will disappoint some, certainly some on both sides of the aisle," Conrad told reporters.
"Some Democrats will be disappointed that there's not another plan to rally around, and some Republicans will be disappointed that there's not another plan to attack. But I am not interested in furthering the political divide. I am focused on trying to get a positive result for the country," he added.
NO BUDGET NEEDED?
Senate Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Conrad himself, have said for months that a budget resolution was not necessary because fiscal 2013 spending levels were already set by legislation to end last year's debt limit standoff.
With no real prospects for passage, Conrad's exercise is more about making a personal statement as his 26-year Senate career comes to a close, much of it focused on reining in deficits. The North Dakotan said he also wanted to "provide a blueprint" for the year-end negotiations on taxes and spending.
Republicans, who have complained that the Democratic-controlled Senate has not passed a budget resolution for three years, called the introduction of a budget with no votes planned for the foreseeable future a "national embarrassment."
"I think there was an uprising and the members did not want to vote on the tough issues facing America. They wanted to punt, to avoid, and to hide from responsibility and he was left with no real support to go forward," said Senator Jeff Sessions, the top Budget Committee Republican.
The Conrad budget, dubbed "The Fiscal Commission Budget Plan" would slash discretionary spending as a percentage of the economy by nearly half, from 8.4 percent of U.S. economic output last year to 4.8 percent by 2022. It would raise tax revenues back to levels last seen during the Clinton administration - when the budget was in surplus for several years - through a tax reform combination that closes tax loopholes, lowers marginal rates, raises taxes on capital gains and phases out the tax exclusion on employer-provided health insurance.
Although it would cut the deficit to a sustainable 2.5 percent of the economy by 2015 and whittle it further in subsequent years, Conrad's plan faces an uphill battle. The original Bowles-Simpson plan in 2010 failed to win enough votes for adoption by President Barack Obama's bipartisan deficit reduction commission. It drew opposition from several commission members from both parties because of specific tax hikes and the loss of specific tax deductions, and cuts to farm subsidies and Social Security benefits.
And a version of the plan that was offered last month in the House of Representatives as a bipartisan alternative to the budget plan from House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan was crushed in a 382-38 vote.
(Reporting By David Lawder; Editing by Paul Simao)