Why This Is Just the End of the Beginning For the Budget Fight

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Senator Pete Domenici announces the passage of the fiscal year 2002 budget

Well, we've got a $1.95 trillion, 4-percent-growth, fiscal 2002 budget deal, with all the fixings.

Just a pinch of bipartisanship: Republicans in the House squeaked by on Wednesday with a near party-line 221-207 passage Wednesday afternoon; the Senate followed up midday Thursday with a 53-47 margin, losing two of their own and picking five of the Breaux bunch from across the aisle.

Dueling congressional news conferences: Republican Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici doffed his cap to Bush — "You have moved us in the direction of giving back taxes to the American people, rather than giving them the last cut of the deck" — and Democrat Robert Byrd pretending to call his mother. "Yes, Mother, I voted for the tax cuts," sang Byrd. "But now, on Medicare, no. We're putting that off for another day, Mother. Forget it." (Byrd also said Social Security, education and just about everything else gets shorted by Bush.)

A little White House gloating: Though Bush, perhaps realizing that his issued gloat Wednesday about bipartisanship in the House vote came off a bit over-spun, toned it down after the Senate version. "The president views this as a very important day in his new presidency," said Ari Fleischer, "and he is very pleased to thank the Democrats that helped make this possible." (Trent Lott said Bush also phoned personally.)

A little centrist gloating (which sounds a lot like the White House gloating): "Is it a perfect document?" asked John Breaux. "Of course not. But does it advance the cause of government in a democracy that is almost evenly divided between the two parties? I think the answer is yes, it does."

And everyone vowing to keep up the fight. The budget process, of course, is never over till it's over (think October), and this was just the budget resolution — the broad outlines of fiscal allotment that the individual appropriations subcommittees will now have to fill in with sharper pencils. And they're non-binding, not even requiring Bush's signature — which means the real fights are just beginning.

The headliner, of course, is the tax cut. Now placeholding $1.35 trillion over 11 years (down from $1.6 trillion over 10), the details are henceforth largely in the hands of the House Ways and Means committee, which has the votes to pass whatever the gung-ho GOP leadership wants, and the Senate Finance committee, which doesn't.

The twin passages this week, which were themselves the result of previous House and Senate votes and the resultant House-Senate conference negotiations, mean that Bush only needs 51 votes in the Senate to get at least the $1.35 trillion he's been promised. Anything more, however, is subject to a Democratic filibuster, and, well, the 60 votes to top that will be very hard to come by.

But in the budget fight, there's always one more battle. "Clearly, in the Finance Committee we will not get what we want to become law because we don't have the votes," pro-Bush taxman Phil Gramm (R-TX) said of the fine-tuning ahead. "So we'll do the best we can, pass it on the floor and fix it in (House-Senate) conference."

Republicans want the $1.35 trillion divided up and set in stone by Memorial Day. The rest — attempts at more tax cuts from Republicans and more spending on education, defense, farmers and other programs from both sides of the aisle. And that'll go on all summer.

No wonder everyone wanted to get their say in now.