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Senate will await Biden group budget plan


Vice President Joe Biden talks to reporters as he departs after meeting with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to work on a legislative framework for comprehensive deficit reduction at the Blair House in Washington May 10, 2011. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Vice President Joe Biden talks to reporters as he departs after meeting with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to work on a legislative framework for comprehensive deficit reduction at the Blair House in Washington May 10, 2011. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate will place its annual budget process on hold to give the outcome of bipartisan deficit-reduction talks a greater chance of becoming law, the Senate's top budget writer said on Thursday.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad said he would not move forward with a budget plan of his own until a group of top lawmakers led by Vice President Joe Biden completed its work.

That could make it easier for Congress to pass any agreement Biden's group works out by allowing it to bypass procedural hurdles that frequently derail legislation in the Senate.

It also increases the pressure on the Biden group, which has emerged as the best hope for a bipartisan deal on taxes and spending that could give lawmakers political cover to increase the country's $14.3 trillion borrowing limit before it faces a possible default on its debt.

Conrad has been involved with several other efforts to craft a deal to keep the country's fast-rising debt under control, but they have run out of steam as lawmakers struggle to resolve a deep divide over taxes and healthcare costs.

As chairman of the Budget Committee, Conrad is responsible for coming up with a plan on taxes and spending that is supposed to pass by April 15 each year. Unlike other legislation, it only requires a simple majority vote to pass the Senate.

Conrad said it made sense to wait until Biden group, composed of six top Republican and Democratic lawmakers, completed its work.

"When you are dealing with something of this magnitude, and you look historically, it has never been the standard process that has been used to solve the problem," he said in a telephone interview.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed their own budget plan last month, which calls for sharp spending cuts and an overhaul of government-run health programs for the elderly and the poor in order to keep the country's debt under control.

Conrad, by contrast, was developing a plan that would rely equally on spending cuts and tax increases, and he has struggled to win enough support from liberal and centrist Democrats to pass it out of committee.

He said it made little sense to bring his bill up for what would likely be a divisive debate that could undermine efforts to craft a compromise.

"It doesn't make a lot of sense to me to go through a partisan (vote) in which people's positions get hardened when you may weeks from now need to be running another one," he said.

The top Republican on the committee said there was no guarantee that the Biden talks would bear fruit.

"Today's announcement is just another excuse for delay," Republican Senator Jeff Sessions said in a prepared statement. "A budget is a vision, a plan for this nation's future, and the American people have a right to know what that vision is."

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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