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On Message: Budget Votes May Matter ... In 2014

House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., holds a copy of his budget plan during a news conference last week. On Thursday, the Republican-controlled House narrowly passed the measure. The Senate is not expected to follow suit.
Carolyn Kaster

Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan's House GOP budget balances in a decade and re-shapes Medicare. That is, it would if the measure passed by the House on Thursday ever became law — which it won't.

Washington Sen. Patty Murray's Democratic budget raises almost $1 trillion in taxes by closing loopholes and adds $100 billion in new spending on infrastructure. But it won't become a reality, either.

That's not just because the House and Senate will never agree. It's because budget proposals don't have the force of law. All the real spending policy happens in the appropriations bills, which are less sexy and don't get nearly as much attention.

The Politics: On Wednesday, the House voted on five different alternatives to the Ryan budget. As expected, they all failed. But all day long on the House floor, members rose to debate these budgets, and all day long, you heard variations on the same two themes.

"The American people want jobs, not austerity," said Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison, echoing a bunch of other Democrats.

"How do you have a balanced approach ... if you can't have a balanced budget?" asked Kansas Republican Tim Huelskamp, channeling other GOP colleagues and reminding voters that the budget offered by Senate Democrats wouldn't eliminate the deficit.

Over on the Senate floor, Texas Republican John Cornyn was back with his big poster board counting the days (1,420 it shouted in red printed numbers) since the Senate had last passed a budget.

The Dance:You'd be forgiven if you thought lives or at least jobs or even government funding were on the line. Not so much.

South Carolina Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney summed up the whole budget dance when he brought up his budget alternative, basically an exact copy of the Senate Democrats' budget.

"Remember," said Mulvaney. "A budget is more than just a spending document. It is also a vision document."

Mulvaney voted against the budget he introduced. It was a stunt. But a stunt with a purpose. Mulvaney got 154 House Democrats on the record supporting the Senate plan, gave House Republicans a chance to vote against it, and proved the Senate budget couldn't pass in the House.

The Message: All congressional budgets are at their core vision documents — political statements with charts and numbers. And they also make nice political weapons. Last year, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee used the Ryan budget, with its reshaping of Medicare, to attack incumbents.

And Democrats fully intend to use the House budget against Republicans again in 2014. "Of course a budget is going to be fair game in any election," says New York Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the DCCC.

Republicans agree: The National Republican Congressional Committee is already running Web ads.

And it doesn't matter that none of these budgets will become a reality, or that congressional budgets lack the force of law, or that they don't actually control spending or taxes.

So, if you live in a district or a state with a vulnerable incumbent, expect to hear a lot more about the votes taken this week ... between now and November 2014.

On Message is an occasional feature exploring the language of Washington. Tamara Keith is NPR's congressional correspondent.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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