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GOP uneasy playing by rules

For years, Senate Republicans taunted their Democratic counterparts for their inability to pass a budget for the coming fiscal year.

According to what is known in Washington as “regular order,” early each year the House and Senate pass separate versions of the budget and the president submits his own. Then a joint House-Senate conference, composed of Democratic and Republicans members of both budget committees, meets to hammer out a final, compromise document. That document is actually a broad blueprint with the details to be filled in by the appropriations committees on each side of the Capitol.

Regular order seemed to be making a comeback when both chambers adopted budgets in April. Then the process ground to a halt.

In one of those reversals that make Washington the eccentric place it is, the Senate Republican leadership is stalling on sending the Senate budget to the joint conference.

One of the GOP’s Senate elders, John McCain of Arizona, told Politico that he was very much in favor of sending the budget to the House and that “we ought to do it right away. ... After four years of complaining about (Senate Democratic leader) Harry Reid’s failure to bring up a budget and then we do one and block conference is something that’s incomprehensible.”

Actually, it’s not so incomprehensible. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and his lieutenants are trying to spare House Republicans from being forced to make potentially career-ending votes – for example, on Republican proposals that over time would change Medicare into a voucher system.

Senate Republicans want House members of the conference committee to agree in advance to certain “parameters,” i.e., no embarrassing votes. This opens the Republicans to a charge of obstructionism, but as GOP Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri said, “There are worse things to be beat up about than whether you’ve gone to conference on the budget or not.”

Emissaries from both sides are working to finesse and finagle their way around the obstacles. They aim to produce compromise procedures for the conference committee that can be called, with a straight face, “regular order.”