Select Senators Stall Budget Process

For years, literally, congressional Republicans called on the Democratically controlled Senate to pass a budget. They marked the days, reaching more than a thousand before the Senate finally did pass a budget earlier this year. Now Democrats are borrowing a page from the playbook, counting the days since the Senate passed a budget and demanding a conference committee.

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OK. The nomination we just heard about involves reaching across the aisle. That's not something we hear much about. When it comes to the federal budget, if it feels like we haven't heard about the budget in a while, there's a reason for that. The process is stalled. Back in March, the House and Senate passed vastly different spending plans. In theory, the next step would be a conference committee to hash out the differences, but a handful of senators are blocking that from happening.

NPR congressional correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: This is a story that prominently features poster boards - big brightly-colored displays, taken to the floors of the House and Senate for dramatic effect, for all the TV viewers at home.

SENATOR JOHN CORNYN: Mr. President, I'm back to the Senate floor today with my favorite chart.

KEITH: That's Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn. And his favorite chart displayed the number of days since the Senate had passed a budget. A new number was pasted on each day he came to the floor.

CORNYN: Now marking 1,420 days without a budget.

KEITH: And he wasn't the only one.

REPRESENTATIVE ADAM KINZINGER: It has been 756 days since Senate Democrats have passed a budget.

REPRESENTATIVE JEFF DUNCAN: One thousand days acting irresponsibly.

SENATOR BOB CORKER: One thousand one hundred and eleven days ago.

CORNYN: One thousand three hundred and eighty-seven days.

KEITH: Those voices were all Republicans: Congressmen Adam Kinzinger and Jeff Duncan, and Senators Bob Corker and John Cornyn again. The Senate's lack of a budget was, to say the least, a major Republican talking point - for years. But then in the early morning hours on March 23, the Senate finally did pass a budget. The next step would be a conference committee. In recent weeks, Democrats have been going to the Senate floor asking for unanimous consent to appoint conferees and begin the process. And each time?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Is there an objection?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Mr. President.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The senator from Texas.

KEITH: Ted Cruz is one of a handful of senators, elected with Tea Party backing, blocking the appointment of a conference committee.

SENATOR TED CRUZ: One of my concerns is that this conference report could be used to pass a reconciliation bill that would increase the debt ceiling without sufficient input from the minority party.

KEITH: For conservatives, the debt ceiling has become a vital piece of leverage to force spending cuts and one they have no intention of giving up easily. The arcane budget process known as reconciliation could potentially make it easier for the Senate to raise the debt ceiling. But for Senator Cruz and his colleagues to have anything to worry about, you have to assume their fellow Republicans on the conference committee would let it happen. Arizona Republican John McCain isn't buying it. And in a series of debates on the Senate floor, he's gotten increasingly upset.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Basically what we're saying here on this side of the aisle is we don't trust our colleagues on the other side of the Capitol who are in the majority of Republicans.

KEITH: Senator Cruz responded.

CRUZ: Let me be clear: I don't trust the Republicans and I don't trust the Democrats. And I think a whole lot of Americans likewise don't trust the Republicans and the Democrats because it is leadership in both parties that has gotten us in this mess.

KEITH: McCain insists he speaks for the majority of Senate Republicans.

MCCAIN: The American people don't like it and I don't like it.

KEITH: And if one of their own is willing to complain about the stalling, you can only imagine what the Democrats are saying. Here is Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill.

SENATOR CLAIRE MCCASKILL: They didn't care about a budget. Because I'll tell you what, if you cared about a budget you'd hightail it to conference right now.

KEITH: So perhaps it was inevitable that the Democrats would get their own poster boards.

SENATOR DEBBIE STABENOW: Forty-six days ago, after over three years...

SENATOR PATTY MURRAY: It's now been 47 days since we passed our budget.

SENATOR HARRY REID: Fifty-eight days waiting for the Republicans.

KEITH: Those were Senators Debbie Stabenow, Patty Murray, and the majority leader, Harry Reid. Murray is the head of the Senate Budget Committee.

MURRAY: I do not understand why, after the House has passed a budget and the Senate passed a budget, the Republicans are now saying we don't want to talk about it.

KEITH: It's much easier for Republicans and Democrats alike to give speeches about a budget in concept than to actually agree on one. And even if they could, it's actually the appropriations bills that spend the money and keep the government running. That's a fight we can look forward to at the end of the summer. Tamara Keith, NPR News.

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