With the clock ticking on Congress' working calendar in this midterm election year, it appears increasingly unlikely the House Democratic leadership will pass a budget resolution for the coming fiscal year -- a move Republicans will seek to exploit for political gain in November.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has candidly acknowledged that politics is a factor in the Democrats' decision-making on the issue.
"It's difficult to pass budgets in election years, because they reflect what the [fiscal] status is," the Maryland Democrat told reporters last month. "We will see whether we have the votes to pass it."
Even though Hoyer and his fellow Democrats argue that it was the Bush administration that plunged the country into deep deficit spending, many Democrats -- especially the fiscally conservative "Blue Dogs" -- are loath to face constituents after voting in favor of a budget so heavily burdened by deficit spending, as any passed this year would surely be. The Congressional Budget Office has projected that the deficit for this fiscal year will reach a record $1.5 trillion.
"There is some real tension within our caucus," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a member of the Budget and Ways and Means Committees, told Fox News this week.
"But it is still an item of open discussion," the Oregon Democrat said. "I would like to be able to move forward with a budget because I think there are some very stark choices that we are going to face. I, for one, feel better about putting [a spending plan] out for everybody to see - but that's a little above my pay grade."
Blumenauer also suggested that the backlogged Senate agenda for the summer -- which includes planned action on President Obama's next Supreme Court nominee, the nuclear treaty with Russia, and new regulations for Wall Street -- makes it somewhat pointless for House Democrats to push a budget plan through before adjournment for the year.
"We've got 290 bills over there that are waiting for action," Blumenauer said, "and I think there are some real questions about whether it's worth taking all the time and energy -- and, frankly, arm-twisting -- to try and move this forward if you're not ultimately going to get a budget passed."
House Republicans, however, have seized on the apparent decision to skip the budget this year as evidence of reckless Democratic stewardship of the economy.
In a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sent on April 15, 73 G.O.P. lawmakers warned that not enacting a budget would "set a terrible precedent...In the absence of a budget, there would be virtually no procedural enforcement mechanism to constrain spending in either the House or the Senate."
"You're flying blind without a budget," Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, told Fox News last week. "Every family budgets; every local and state government budgets; surely the federal government should budget."
"What we're basically saying is after just raising taxes $670 billion dollars this session, after raising spending $1.8 trillion dollars this session, after creating a whole new health care entitlement this session, we're not even going to budget?" Ryan said.
Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Fla., a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, agreed that a budget is "necessary" for lawmakers and constituents alike.
"I don't believe that the people in Washington, D.C. have come to grips with the magnitude of this problem, and the crisis that they're creating for our children and grandchildren, if we don't fix" our deficits, Boyd said.
"We've just been going to the credit card and putting it on our children's credit card, and sooner or later that balance gets so big that the credit card [and] the lenders won't lend you any more money," he said.
If the Democratic leadership does not adopt a budget resolution, laying out a spending plan for the next fiscal year, it would mark the first such occasion since the dawn of the modern budgeting process, in 1974.
Only four times in the last 35 years has Congress failed to approve a budget resolution. Three of those were midterm years, and Republicans controlled the House in all four. But in all four cases, the House adopted at least a non-binding budget resolution.
As a legal matter, Congress doesn't have to pass a budget; it's simply a non-binding blueprint, a design that helps lawmakers decide how much the government can spend on individual programs.
But that doesn't mean the government won't operate. The House and Senate will likely just pass a large, catch-all spending bill to run the government in the new fiscal year.