WASHINGTON – Democrats are in such a pickle about the type of budget they must propose this year that the ranking member of the House Budget Committee has already written off his responsibility for the budget.
With the return to deficit spending, Democrats must walk a fine line between cutting spending for federal programs and locating new revenue without suggesting the political unpopular option of calling for a repeal of tax cuts passed last year.
Asked how he would fix the budget, ranking committee member John Spratt, D-S.C., said, "That's above my pay grade."
Yet it is up to Spratt as well as Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, and other Democrats to find an alternative to President Bush's annual proposed budget, due Feb. 4.
They inevitably will have to come up with a way to balance the budget and find hundreds of billions of dollars in savings required to shield Social Security's trust funds from being dipped into to pay for added expenses.
"The Democratic Party has made great gains ... for being the party of fiscal discipline, and I don't intend to retreat from that fundamental message," Conrad said.
"The only way someone can develop a budget that has larger surpluses than the president's is to propose raising taxes or spending less than the administration," said Rep. John Sununu, R-N.H., a senior member of the House Budget Committee.
"If that's what Tom Daschle or Kent Conrad put forward, we'll have an interesting and spirited debate," Sununu said.
Senate Democrats have a 50-49 majority, plus a Democratic-leaning independent. To succeed, Conrad will have to craft a budget that threads the needle through a Democratic caucus that includes liberals like New York's Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and conservatives and moderates facing re-election like Sens. Max Cleland of Georgia, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Tim Johnson of South Dakota.
Though refusing to discuss specifics, Conrad said his budget's first priority will be to protect Social Security and Medicare surpluses. He said he also wants to increase spending for education and defense, and propose new federal prescription drug subsidies and perhaps short-term tax cuts aimed at sparking the economy.
He said he would pay for this by restraining spending and looking at "revenue sources," not tax increases but items such as selling off federal assets. Such sales traditionally run into opposition from lawmakers and produce relatively small sums.
Even if he prevails, Conrad's budget is likely to be so different from the one written by the GOP-controlled House that the two chambers probably will not approve a compromise version. That would mean lawmakers would need another way to set overall tax and spending targets.
President Bush has been trying to prepare the nation for a return to deficit spending after four years of surpluses. Bush has already conceded that the election-year budget he sends Congress may not be balanced. Mitch Daniels, director of the Office of Management and Budget, announced in November that deficits will be the order of the day for the next four years.
But the president must offer a sound budget without alienating potential Republican voters who depend on programs like Medicare and Social Security, whose funds will be dipped into to cover the deficit.
On top of that, he must convince voters that the $1.35 trillion tax cut he pushed through Congress last year was not excessive. The 10-year projected surplus was revised to about $1.8 trillion, one third of the $5.6 trillion foreseen just a year ago. A slightly worse projection is expected at month's end from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, Congress' official budget calculator.
Republicans say they believe voters will take current events into account and not punish the GOP in next November's elections for control of Congress.
"The public understands that in time of war and recession, deficits are going to result," said Republican consultant Ed Gillespie.
Nevertheless, Democrats hope to put Bush on the defensive for the drastic deterioration of the budget during his first year in the White House.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., already has blamed the tax cut for the economic recession that began last March, setting up the election year debate in a scathing speech last week.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.