By Jonathan Weisman
House Republican efforts to forge a budget blueprint for the coming fiscal year collapsed last night amid acrimony and name-calling, as the fissures between GOP moderates and conservatives once again burst into the open.
The failure to secure a budget plan before the two-week spring recess was an embarrassment to a new Republican leadership eager to show it could hold its ranks without the party's chief discipline enforcer, Rep. Tom DeLay (Tex.). After he announced his resignation this week, DeLay took a swipe at his successors, labeling them splintered and "without an agreed agenda."
Moreover, it showed how difficult governance will be in an election year when endangered rank-and-file members are ready to go their own way to prove their independence from a party mired in weak approval ratings.
That is especially true with fiscal matters. Despite strong economic growth and robust increases in federal tax receipts, the budget deficit is expected to reach about $370 billion this year, near a record high. With their leaders still loath to raise taxes, Republican conservatives are demanding deeper spending cuts to bring the deficit under control, but GOP moderates say the cuts to domestic programs, especially in education and health care, have gone far enough.
"Our goals for good fiscal policy remain the same and will be realized with a fiscally responsible budget and real institutional reforms. I remain committed to working with all members to reach agreement on budget process reforms so we can move forward with the budget after the Easter district work period," said House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
But Boehner had said Tuesday he would not try to secure a budget deal if the House could not pass one this week. And by last night, the factions were far apart. A budget plan is not required, but by agreeing early in the year on spending limits and broad tax policy, lawmakers have had a far easier time resolving specific spending and tax bills ahead of the new fiscal year, which begins in October.
The House Budget Committee had produced a $2.8 trillion spending blueprint for 2007 that assumed the extension of President Bush's expiring tax cuts and would have added $3 trillion to the national debt over five years.
Conservative Republicans demanded more spending cuts. Moderate Republicans demanded more spending on health, education and labor programs.
"We have members who want to spend more. We have members who want to spend less," Boehner warned. "Finding common ground has always been difficult. This year is no different."
But the final collapse came when Republican members of the House Appropriations Committee announced they opposed a proposal to cap annual disaster aid.
"I cannot and will not support a resolution that greatly diminishes Congress's ability to respond to national disasters," said committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (Calif.).
Boehner last night blamed the Democrats for standing united against the budget plan, but budgets have long been the responsibility of the majority party to pass. With the collapse, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said, it is time the Republican leadership realizes that the deep fiscal problems facing the nation will take bipartisan solutions.
"The decision by House Republican leaders to pull their budget resolution from further floor consideration this week clearly demonstrates that the party is deeply divided and on the political run," he said.
House and Senate negotiators did near agreement yesterday on a measure to extend Bush's deep cuts to the tax rates on dividends and capital gains, while easing the impact of the alternative minimum tax, a parallel tax system designed to hit the rich but increasingly pinching the middle class.
But the budget collapse meant any final deal will have to wait until after the spring recess, depriving Republicans of some bragging rights ahead of the April 17 tax deadline. The deal, which could cost the Treasury as much as $70 billion, could falter anyway in the Senate if Democrats can show provisions to offset that cost are nothing more than gimmicks.
The tax deal would be the culmination of negotiations that have stretched on since last December.
Staff writer Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.