Republicans have been complaining for years that Senate Democrats aren’t writing and voting on formal budget plans. Democrats’ stated reasoning for this has been that there’s no point in passing a budget resolution that’s dead on arrival in the House of Representatives, especially when budget policy is actually made in high-stakes negotiations between House leaders and the Obama administration.
But their real reason for the budget negligence was more political. Democrats have shied away from voting for budgets that either contain large tax increases or large budget deficits and have been divided among themselves over how best to proceed. The GOP believes that forcing Democrats to go on the record with a budget will be a political bonanza.
A year ago it might have been. But Senate Democrats have a new top budget officer in town—Patty Murray of Washington state—who’s substantially more liberal and also more politically adept than her predecessor. With Kent Conrad, D-North Dakota, now retired and Murray in the chair of the Budget Committee, Democrats are eager to play “compare the budgets.” They believe they can win the budget politics as soundly as they won the 2012 elections.
Recently, her profile’s been skyrocketing. When she was tapped in 2011 to lead the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee for the 2012 cycle, it was widely viewed as a booby prize, the leadership job nobody wanted. The objective “map” facing Democratic Senate candidates was terrible. But things kept breaking in Murray’s favor, and Democrats ended up gaining two seats in a cycle when they were initially expected to lose several. Concurrently, Majority Leader Harry Reid tapped Murray to join the supercommittee set up as part of the 2011 deal to lift the debt ceiling. Here she did an impressive job of holding the often-fractious party together. Her charge was to hold the line on the principle that any deal must include meaningful new tax revenue, and when Republicans wouldn’t budge, the Democrats held firm, too.
Party discipline on the supercommittee plus electoral wins in 2012 laid the groundwork for the president’s victory in the fiscal cliff deal—getting Republicans to vote for higher taxes on the richest Americans.
As budget chair, Murray’s job is to keep holding that line. Democrats are willing to cut domestic spending but only in the context of a deal that raises tax revenue and does it in a progressive way. A memo from her office circulated to other Senate Democrats on Thursday says, among other things, “Revenue Must Be Included in Any Deal,” boldfaced and underlined for emphasis. The focus is on closing or curtailing tax deductions rather than raising rates. It’s politically potent terrain since Republicans from John Boehner to Paul Ryan and beyond have agreed loopholes should be curtailed. The difference is the GOP insists revenue raised from loophole-closing should be spent on reducing tax rates. This sets up what Democrats believe is a winning political argument, with Republicans seeking deep cuts in valuable social programs to pay for what amounts to tax cuts for the rich.
In her introductory statement as chair Friday morning, Murray said she plans “to bring the voices of the American people into a budget process and conversation that is too often limited to bureaucrats and politicians.”
Her predecessor, Conrad, was for better or worse an incredibly earnest believer in both the budget process and an unusually sincere deficit hawk. In a different era, he’d have been an ideal person to draw up a wonky compromise between moderate senators of both parties. But in our polarized era, those traits tended to leave Conrad undercutting Democratic negotiating stances and still not making a deal. Murray’s more human-centered approach is about laying down a marker and winning a political argument. Meeting House Republicans’ goal of balancing the budget within 10 years without higher taxes or defense cuts would require a 17 percent cut in all other spending. Democrats are going to want to counter that with an alternative that’s more balanced but also less austere overall.
If Democrats can shift the argument off the number-crunching and onto the real consequences of spending cuts, they should have a winning hand. Voters are very concerned about the deficit in the abstract but oppose cuts in virtually all specific programs. Republicans, in other words, are about to get the budget argument they’ve been demanding for years. But faced with an opponent who’s more in line with her party’s base and more focused on winning the debate than cutting a deal, they may find they don’t like the outcome.