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With President Barack Obama a day away from offering his fiscal year 2013 budget proposal, Jack Lew -- now the White House Chief of Staff and previously director of the Office of Management and Budget -- defended the Democratic-controlled Senate against Republican criticism about not planning to pass a budget.
On the Feb. 12, 2012, edition of CNN’s State of the Union with Candy Crowley, the host said to Lew, "I want to read for our viewers something (from) Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader in the U.S. Senate, who said, we do not need to bring a budget to the floor this year. It's done. We don't need to do it, talking about last year's two-year agreement and saying that, you know, … it's already done."
Lew responded, "Well, let's be clear. What Sen. Reid is talking about is a fairly narrow point. In order for the Senate to do its annual work on appropriation bills, they need to pass a certain piece of legislation which sets a limit. They did that last year. That's what he's talking about. He's not saying that they shouldn't pass a budget. But we also need to be honest. You can't pass a budget in the Senate of the United States without 60 votes, and you can't get 60 votes without bipartisan support. So unless Republicans are willing to work with Democrats in the Senate, Harry Reid is not going to be able to get a budget passed. And I think he was reflecting the reality that that could be a challenge."
So we decided to take a look for ourselves.
The annual congressional budget resolution plays a very specific -- and for outsiders, arcane -- role in the process of spending the federal government’s money. It’s not a piece of legislation that actually spends money -- in fact, as a resolution, it doesn’t even have the force of law and does not go to the president to be signed -- but rather helps provide a general spending blueprint and helps define benchmarks in the budget process.
"The budget resolution was designed to provide a framework to make budget decisions, leaving specific program determinations to the Appropriations Committees and other committees with spending and revenue jurisdiction," the Congressional Research Service writes. The process of writing a budget resolution begins following the submission of the president’s budget in January or February.
We’ll skip a few interim steps (including floor consideration in the House) but when the budget resolution is ready to hit the floor in the Senate, its consideration is governed by section 305(b)(1) of the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, the law that enshrined the current federal budget process.
Most business in the Senate is subject to filibustering -- that is, actions, or even just threats, to talk a bill to death. Filibusters can be overcome by what’s known as a "cloture" vote that shuts off debate and moves a measure toward final consideration. For the Senate to agree to cloture requires 60 votes -- a high threshold that many Senate majorities are unable to muster on controversial votes (and, increasingly, even on relatively uncontroversial votes).
However, the filibuster cannot be used to block a budget resolution. That’s because the Budget Act sets out a specific amount of time for debate in the Senate -- 50 hours. If a specific amount of debate time is enshrined in the controlling statute, the filibuster is moot. So a simple majority -- not 60 votes -- is all that’s required to pass a budget resolution.
Indeed, passing a budget resolution by at least 60 votes has become increasingly rare in recent years, according to CRS data. Since 1994, the Senate vote has exceeded that vote threshold just three times, either in the initial vote or on a subsequent vote in which lawmakers consider an identical House-Senate version of the resolution.
More common in recent years are votes where 51 was enough to prevail. In 2009, the Senate even passed the final budget resolution by a 48-45 margin.
"The budget resolution vote is always a partisan affair, and rarely does it gain any minority party support," said Steve Ellis, a vice president at Taxpayers for Common Sense.
So Lew is clearly wrong to say that "you can't pass a budget in the Senate of the United States without 60 votes." As a longtime senior official at OMB and other federal agencies, he should have known better.
The White House, for its part, has said that Lew was referring to the general gridlock in Congress and not to the specific budget resolution.
Some federal budget experts think the White House has a point, despite being wrong on the vote threshold for the budget resolution. A budget resolution is just a blueprint; being able to implement many of its provisions would likely require 60 votes eventually,said Roy T. Meyers, a political scientist at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County who specializes in budget issues. "Lew is absolutely on the mark on the bigger picture," Meyers said.
Still, Lew was precise in his wording, and on that claim, he was wrong.
On the specific question he was asked -- about the congressional budget resolution -- Lew said you need 60 votes to pass it. That’s flatly wrong. On the larger question of putting together what we think most people would call the "federal budget," a majority party may be able to get its budget resolution passed, but that’s not the same thing as actually enacting spending bills to implement it. In all likelihood, these bills would require 60 votes in the Senate. Still, Lew's specific claim was False.
Jack Lew, comments on CNN's State of the Union with Candy Crowley, Feb. 12, 2012
Text of Congressional Budget Act
Congressional Research Service, "Congressional Budget Resolutions: Historical Information," April 4, 2011
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "Policy Basics: Introduction to the Federal Budget Process," Jan. 3, 2011
ABC News, "WH Chief of Staff Errs on Senate Budget Rules," Feb. 12, 2012
Email interview with Norm Ornstein, congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Feb. 13, 2012
Email interview with Roy T. Meyers, political scientist at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, Feb 13, 2012
Email interview with Steve Ellis, vice president at Taxpayers for Common Sense, Feb. 13, 2012
Email interview with Don Wolfensberger, congressional scholar with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Feb. 13, 2012
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