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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Spinning the Budget Vote

Given the political and policy magnitude of the budget resolutions that cleared the House and Senate yesterday, it’s not surprising that the spin is full on to interpret it. But we’re already seeing some interpretations that appear to be at war with themselves.
Today’s article on the vote in Politico (by David Rogers) carries the somber title: “Budgets Fall Short of Obama Mandates.” But by the second graph, Rogers (who, of course, didn’t write the headline) was saying this:

No Republican in either chamber backed the president, but the 233-196 House vote surpassed the size of budget victories for either party over the last decade. And Democrats lost only two of their members on the 55-43 vote in the Senate.

So: what was it? A historic triumph or a horrible setback?
Dig down into the story, and you’re informed that one problem for Obama is that the Senate did not issue reconciliation instructions, which means the key climate change and health care components of the budget blueprint will be vulnerable to Senate filibusters. But that’s not news. It’s been obvious that Obama’s carbon cap-and-trade initiative wouldn’t benefit from reconciliation treatment ever since eight Senate Democrats signed a letter opposing such a step. Meanwhile, the general expectation is that the House approach of tentatively including health care reform in a reconciliation package (if only as a lever to force Republicans to the table) will be accepted by the Senate in the conference committee negotiations just ahead.
The one real surprise in the Senate deliberations was an amendment increasing the exclusion from the federal estate tax, and lowering the top rate on estates from 45% to 35%. But Obama was already proposing a more modest increase in the exclusion, and the close (51-48) vote itself was only symbolic; the tax-writing committees in both Houses would have to act on it separately. In any event, those with good medium-range memory will recall how recently Congress enacted a complete repeal of what Republicans call “the death tax;” as part of the GOP’s budget gimmickry, however, the repeal was set to sunset on the theory that Congress would not dare reinstate it. So we’ve actually made quite a bit of progress on the estate tax since 2001, even in the unlikely event that the Senate amendment is fully implemented.
All in all, yesterday’s votes were about the best the administration could expect. The “party of No” held its ranks; Democratic defections were low; and Democrats have some momentum going forward–no matter how the headlines read.

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