Analysis: Democrats flinching on agenda, basic tasks because of election fears, deficit

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional Democrats returning this week to the Washington they control will confront an embarrassing pile of unfinished budget business after spending the winter and spring blowing deadline after deadline.

With many Democratic lawmakers running for their political lives five months before the fall elections, even relatively simple tasks such as helping the jobless and preventing cuts in Medicare payments to doctors are hanging — victims of the ever increasing anxiety over annual trillion-dollar-plus deficits.

A war funding bill is long overdue. The most basic chore of writing a budget has been all but abandoned. There's no sign of the 12 annual spending bills for keeping government agencies open four months from now.

On the horizon is the dilemma of what to do about renewing a long roster of tax cuts enacted under former President George W. Bush. They're due to expire two months after the November election. Lawmakers will be under tremendous pressure to act in September or October. Based on the record so far, it won't be smooth — and might not get done before Election Day.

Efforts to pass a nonbinding blueprint that sketches out fiscal goals have stalled in the House. Moderate "Blue Dog" Democrats have demanded spending cuts beyond President Barack Obama's proposed freeze on domestic agency operating budgets. House leaders and the liberal core of the party are resisting.

The most painful budget questions — where and how to raise taxes or cut popular benefit programs, or both — were handed them off to bipartisan fiscal commission, which many budget experts believe is unlikely to succeed in coming up with a deficit-cutting plan.

"Every family knows that in tough times, a budget is even more important — not less important," said House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio. "A $13 trillion national debt is an alarm bell and a wake-up call together, and it demands more than just lip service."

It's hardly the first time that Congress won't have passed a budget resolution, but Democrats were harshly critical of Republicans' failures to do so in the past.

"If you can't budget, you can't govern," Rep. John Spratt Jr., D-S.C., now the House Budget Committee chairman, said when the GOP-controlled Congress failed to produce a budget in 2006.

Unemployment benefits for hundreds of thousands of long-term jobless workers have been interrupted three times this year because Congress failed to meet self-imposed deadlines for renewing them. Delays in passing a catchall bill for extending those benefits, popular tax breaks and safety net programs through the election appear to have cost governors $24 billion in federal help with their Medicaid budgets.

The Medicaid money had won passage earlier in the House and Senate, then got dumped last month after protests from Democratic moderates unhappy about voting for higher deficits. Democratic leaders also were forced to drop a $7 billion extension of a program providing generous health insurance subsidies to the jobless.

"I just wasn't willing to vote for a lot of stuff ... that while good and urgent, should be paid for," said freshman Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn.

To be sure, Democrats spent much of their time and attention early in the year on passing Obama's health care overhaul, which promises to have a far greater long-term impact on fiscal policy and political debates.

Republicans have been relentlessly on the attack, offering up mostly small-bore ideas for cutting spending. Like Democrats, most Republicans have steered clear of politically risky topics such as cutting Medicare and other benefit programs.

Democratic leaders are optimistic that the unemployment insurance measure and its many companion elements will pass Congress this month and be signed by Obama.

Extending Bush's tax cuts sounds a lot easier than done, especially in the face of record deficits. Obama wants to renew them — except for families making more than $250,000 per year and individuals making more than $200,000. He would raise their taxes.

But most Democrats never voted for the Bush tax cuts. Recent moves by House Democrats to scrap billions of dollars for Medicaid and health insurance subsidies for the unemployed — after voting for them in December — provide evidence of how those worries over the deficit have intensified.

"It's pretty obvious that the Democrats are in a mass panic over the deficit," said GOP tax expert Ken Kies of the Federal Policy Group. "I don't think they're going to extend the Bush tax cuts. The deficit's too big."

There's been no sign this year of the 12 annual appropriations bills that usually dominate Congress' summer schedule. Last year, the House passed all 12 before the summer recess in August. This year, because there's no budget in place, lawmakers have yet to set bottom-line figures for working back to figure out much each agency and program can spend in the budget year that begins Oct. 1.

Moderate Democrats and the party's more liberal leaders are divided. Congress may end up bundling most of the bills into a giant stack and pass them as a catchall measure during a postelection lame-duck session.


EDITOR'S NOTE — Associated Press writer Andrew Taylor has covered Congress for 20 years.