WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats may finally be ready to pass a federal budget this year, but don't let the hype of the House's "No Budget, No Pay Act" gimmick fool you: Harry Reid's days of failing to advance a budget were numbered long before House Republicans started threatening to deny him his paycheck.
House Republicans wasted no time this week claiming credit for signals that the Senate might finally get a budget passed.
"There was no indication they were ever going to do a budget until we announced last week that we were going to move this bill that said pass a budget or no pay," House Speaker John Boehner said this week.
But the provision in question — attached to the debt ceiling extension the House passed — is ultimately for show. Its Constitutionality is not certain, and the vast majority of Senators make significant sums of money every year outside of the Senate, making any deferral in payments less painful on most of them than it would be to an average American.
But perhaps more importantly, the political winds had already shifted toward the Senate needing to pass a budget after years of inaction.
November's election was a key turning point for the budget process. With Democratic gains in the Senate, Reid can now lose as many as five Democrats on any one vote and still pass a Democratic budget if Vice President Joe Biden casts the deciding vote. From an internal conference perspective, that makes a budget fight much less scary, since Democrats can likely beat back Republican amendments they don't like and still pass a budget of some sort.
In the past, Reid worried that a tough budget vote would endanger red state Democrats, but now many, like Sens. Jon Tester and Claire McCaskill, are six years away from their next campaign, and feel less pressure to buck Democratic leadership and hue to the right on budget show votes.
What's more, election night marked the end of former Budget Chairman Kent Conrad's control of the process, and the ascension of Sen. Patty Murray to the committee's top slot. Unlike Conrad, who was the consummate budget nerd, Murray is not only a member of leadership, she quarterbacked the party's successful election night as chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
That means politics — both electorally and within the conference — will weigh heavily on how she moves forward with the budget process this year. Indeed, according to Democratic Senate aides, during last year's lame duck Murray quickly began staffing up her budget shop and laying the groundwork to actually move a budget this year.
That said, don't necessarily look for a traditional budget document with lots of explicit statements on what will or won't be priorities. Rather, Democrats said, this year's budget could end up being more broad, providing basic outlines for the Appropriations Committee — where the real work of spending or cutting ends up happening — to follow.
And that blueprint will most assuredly run directly counter to what House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan puts forward in the coming weeks.
"I think Chairman Murray, in her new post, has been relishing the opportunity to set herself up as a foil to Paul Ryan by doing a progressive alternative to his budget," a senior Democratic leadership aide said, adding, "We see a budget resolution as our best opportunity to obtain the further revenues we want to be apply to paying down half the sequester."
In fact, Murray this week made her intentions clear in a letter to members of the Senate, arguing that "the most significant conclusion that can be drawn from the facts as they stand today: We need to fight to make sure any budget deal we make is balanced, fair for the middle class, and calls on the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share."
This is not, however, to say that House Republicans can't take at least partial credit for the turnaround on the part of Senate Democrats.
Although both sides traditionally love to grandstand over the budget, the document itself is relatively meaningless. While it sets overall spending levels, it is ultimately a nonbinding political statement of sorts, laying out the spending priorities for the White House, House, and Senate, respectively.
So, when Senate Democrats found themselves in a difficult political spot starting in 2009, abandoning the process made sense: Reid could protect his members from hard message votes and keep Republicans hijacking the priority setting process with the help of squeamish red-state Democrats.
And Democrats might have left it at that, aides admitted, if it hadn't been for the fact that Republicans launched a highly successful messaging campaign against them over the lack of a budget, repeatedly hammering Democrats in both chambers for the Senate's failures and raising the basic question in voters mind of why the Senate can't do what every American family does out of course.
Although Democrats were able to resist the pressure, it has continued to mount — check the Twitter feed of any major Democratic politician and it's littered with Republicans and Independents questioning why they can't complete a budget.
And the importance of that public pressure can't be underestimated.
"The stuff that [House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy] has been doing on what's happened since the last time we passed a budget … that really gets traction outside of Washington," a second Democratic leadership aide acknowledged, noting that "it's really hard to explain how the budget doesn't matter and not look stupid."
John Stanton is a senior national correspondent for BuzzFeed News. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
Contact John Stanton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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