Another fine mess we’ve gotten into

Perhaps it’s a good thing that Sens. John McCain, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama are preoccupied with running for president because if they were involved in the budget debate back in Washington they might decide they don’t want the job.

This week the House and Senate take up the budget resolutions that set the spending guidelines for the 12 appropriations bills that fund next year’s government operations, the spending on entitlement programs like Medicare and the taxes needed to pay for them.

Both the House and Senate Democratic plans, like President Bush’s and the Republicans’ alternatives, project deficits turning into surpluses in 2012 and 2013. On paper, this is a plausible goal; politically, it’s probably impossible and almost certainly so if the economy goes — or is already — in recession. And none of the plans faces up to the possible long-term costs of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Democrats get to where they’re going by allowing Bush’s tax cuts — on income, capital gains, dividends and small businesses — to expire in 2010. That would free up money for increased spending on assorted domestic programs.

The Republicans would arrive at their goal — saving the tax cuts — by calling for politically unsustainable cuts in spending on Medicare, Medicaid, housing and other popular domestic spending programs. One GOP amendment would have kept the tax cuts simply by running more deficits.

Bush has threatened to veto any attempt to repeal his tax cuts, and he has threatened to veto any sizable increases in spending on Democrats’ pet programs.

Congress likely will pass the bills funding the national defense and homeland security and, of course, the bill funding its own operations. But Bush and the Democrats may deadlock on everything else. If the Democrats sense that the election will give them greater control of Congress, they’ll be attempted to run out the clock on Bush, passing temporary measures to keep the government running until he leaves office.

That means a huge budget mess will be waiting in Washington for the next president — McCain, Clinton, Obama or whomever. The situation by then may have deteriorated so that the new president has the worst of both worlds — raising taxes and cutting spending, thus angering everybody. As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

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