WASHINGTON — This week's congressional budget fight will reveal a lot about how Congress is likely to proceed this year on President Barack Obama's agenda.
As long as Obama remains popular, most Democratic members of Congress will likely be loyal and only occasionally show flashes of independence, while most Republican lawmakers will be shut out of any meaningful role.
The Senate plans to begin debate Monday on a $3.55 trillion fiscal 2010 budget that's close to what Obama sought. The House of Representatives will consider its version later in the week. It too differs little from Obama's vision. Final votes are expected on Thursday, and negotiators from the two chambers plan expect to craft a compromise by late April.
The budget will set the stage — and in some ways set the rules — for bigger fights to come on health care, carbon emission reduction and tax policy.
Since Democrats have strong majorities in both houses, their moderates hold the keys to success, and they showed last week that they are unwilling at this point to defy Obama or congressional leaders.
As long as Obama's approval ratings stay high, "He can make things happen if he wants to," said Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Last week's budget deliberations raised a big question about how congressional Democrats measure success: They talked about making big changes to Obama's budget, but in the end didn't, and then both they and Obama declared victory. How do they figure they won?
For example, Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, wanted to cut deficits by two thirds over the next five years, more than the one half that Obama proposed.
Conrad said that he'd make tough choices. At the start of the proceedings, he sat in front of a picture of a dog to illustrate the aphorism that if one wants a friend in Washington, get a dog, because he knows that cutting spending to reduce deficits will alienate most of his colleagues.
And in the end the Senate's budget plan did cut the deficit by almost two thirds over five years. But it did so in part by omitting any plans for health care and carbon-emissions control; they'll come later, and they could change the numbers plenty.
At the same time, the 51-member conservative-to-moderate House Democratic Blue Dog Coalition agreed to a "statement of principles" urging only small increases in nondefense discretionary spending. Other Democrats too questioned whether Obama's bid to increase that spending by 10.1 percent was too generous.
In the end, Obama's number was cut — but only a little — to about 7 percent in the Senate and 9.5 percent in the House.
Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Fla., a Blue Dog leader, praised the House budget as "a good start for getting us on a glidepath to fixing the problems we have."
White House Budget Director Peter Orszag declared that the congressional Democratic budget proposals gave Obama 98 percent of what the president wanted.
Three hours after Orszag spoke on Wednesday, Obama met with Senate Democrats. Six questions were asked in the 40-minute session, mostly about the direction of the economy. Few budget specifics were discussed, and senators emerged almost glowing.
"He made us all feel content and inspired by where we need to go," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
The tough choices were put aside until later.
Unresolved, for instance, were Congress's next moves on health care or reducing carbon emissions. House Democrats want the budget bill to include terms that would let legislation on both major priorities be approved by simple majority vote in the Senate.
Usually, 60 votes are needed to end Senate debate and force a final vote; Democrats control only 58 Senate seats in the 100-member Senate. If the majority-vote terms are included in the budget, Democrats could pass their plans with 51 votes.
Senators of both parties, however, are balking at doing it that way. The dispute probably will be resolved by budget bill negotiators sometime in the next month.
Obama also could benefit from a lack of coordinated opposition. Republicans are split on whether to cooperate with Democrats or dissent.
At the start of House Budget Committee deliberations, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the committee's top Republican, urged the Blue Dogs to join the GOP in making significant spending cuts.
Ryan conceded that "Republicans clearly made mistakes" in past budgets, as spending ballooned under the Bush administration. Now, he told committee Democrats, "You can stop this. Join us to stop this fiscal train wreck."
No one seemed to be listening, and by week's end Ryan joined Republican House leaders in introducing an alternative budget outline that was largely a rhetorical blast at Democratic policies.
"All the signals are that we're not going to converge, we're going to diverge," said Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., the chairman of the House Budget Committee.
At the moment, that doesn't bother Democrats. They see victory this week, and will take the future as it comes.
"We've come together," said moderate Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.
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