The fragile credibility of the Republican Congress faces a severe test in the next two weeks. Shaken by the fiasco of its misguided intervention in the Terri Schiavo case, the GOP majority that controls the House and Senate now must deal with the less dramatic but more substantive challenge of trying to write a federal budget for next year.
Before Easter, the two chambers passed -- by slim margins -- spending and tax plans for fiscal 2006 that differ sharply from each other and diverge at important points from the proposal endorsed by President Bush.
Insiders tell me the odds are no better than 50-50 that the disagreements can be successfully negotiated when conferees from the House and Senate meet over the next couple of weeks. Failure would mean that for the third time in four years, Congress would flunk in its elemental duty to provide a coherent framework for fiscal policy.
The budget resolution is supposed to guide the actions of congressional committees when they write the annual appropriation bills for the government agencies and renew such massive entitlement programs as Medicaid. The failure of the House and Senate to agree on those budget blueprints has contributed to the runaway deficits of the past four years.
Failure to pass a budget resolution this year would also jeopardize several Bush policy goals. A variety of important measures, including extensions of expiring tax cuts and permission for oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, can be passed with simple majorities as part of a budget agreement. But those same measures would be subject to Democratic filibusters if no budget measure is finally enacted.
For all these reasons, the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill understands that nothing is more important this spring than securing agreement on the budget resolution. And those leaders also know that the burden is directly on their party.
Time was when budgets were subject to bipartisan negotiation and compromise, leading to overwhelming floor votes. But that pattern ended when Republicans in the House and Senate voted unanimously against the first Bill Clinton budget in 1993. This year, Democrats unanimously opposed the Republican budget resolutions. GOP defections -- four in the Senate and 12 in the House -- narrowed the margins in both chambers. The House passed its version 218-214; the Senate, 51-49.
Complicating the prospects for agreement are several changes the Senate approved during a marathon session of amendments. By a four-vote margin, it agreed to eliminate a $14 billion saving in the Medicaid program sought by the administration.
Republican Norm Coleman of Minnesota, the former mayor of St. Paul, heeded the pleas of the city lobbies and won restoration of funds the White House wanted to eliminate for community development block grants. These have been the favorite tool for mayors' efforts to upgrade blighted neighborhoods. That amendment passed 68-31, and so did a dozen others protecting politically sensitive spending initiatives.
Even with these "sweeteners," the resolution barely made it through the Senate, amid complaints from some budget hawks, such as George Voinovich, R-Ohio, that it would still add too much to the national debt.
But the Senate add-ons really griped the House, where conservatives were already restive about the volume of spending contemplated for next year. This tension -- with the House demanding tax cuts and economies larger than the Senate Republicans believe the country will support -- is what blocked final passage of budgets in previous years.
But never before in George Bush's tenure has the Republican Congress been subject to so much criticism for its performance. Judging from the comments I heard from high-level Republicans during a visit to California, the continuing news stories on House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's ethics problems and the spectacle of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's joining DeLay in the quest for headlines in the Schiavo case have created a sense that this is the gang that can't shoot straight.
Most times, the fate of the budget resolution is of interest only to Beltway insiders. But with its credibility already in tatters, Congress really needs to show it can handle one of its big -- and most basic -- assignments reasonably well. The heat is on.