The long-running, intensely partisan congressional fight over fiscal policy now has turned to competing versions of a budget framework for fiscal 2014. This week saw House Republicans and Senate Democrats introduce sharply differing budget plans and move them quickly through committee.

Narrowing the wide gaps between the two measures will be tough. There have been inklings of reaching across party lines but they have been all but drowned out by blasts of criticism from each side about the other's budget blueprint. 

As construction industry officials study the House and Senate proposals, they are paying close attention to their numbers for discretionary spending—the broad budget category that includes infrastructure, federal buildings and environmental cleanup programs.

Another key construction item is a provision in the Senate budget measure calling for a new, $100-billion infusion that includes $90 billion for infrastructure. A federal infrastructure bank is part of the package.

Why is the budget measure important? There hasn't been an enacted budget resolution since fiscal year 2010, and federal programs have kept operating, though relying on stopgap spending bills.

Even though budget resolutions are non-binding, they do lay out overall revenue and spending levels for appropriations committees to follow.  But it's worth underlining that whether or not a new budget resolution becomes law,  it will be up to the appropriators to set specific amounts for each line-item, including the construction accounts.

The House moved first on the FY 2014 budget legislation. The Budget Committee on March 13 cleared a  measure drawn up by the panel's chairman, Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Ryan says the plan would reduce federal outlays by $4.6 trillion over 10 years, compared with spending levels based on keeping status quo fiscal policies in place.

Ryan says the proposal is "a responsible, reasonable, balanced plan" that would produce a surplus in 2023. He expects a floor vote on the measure during the week of March 18.

Of the $4.6 trillion, the biggest component is $1.8 trillion from repealing the 2010 Affordable Care Act—something that is widely viewed as having next to no chance of occurring. Ryan’s plan also would reduce base discretionary spending by $249 billion compared with current policy.

Using a year-by-year comparison, however, Ryan's budget would hike discretionary spending in 2014, to $1.11 trillion, from this year's expected $984 billion, then pare it back in the next two years. The discretionary total would climb slightly in succeeding years, ending up at a little more than $1.2 trillion in 2023.

In the Senate, the Budget Committee on March 13 approved a proposal developed by its chair, Patty Murray (D-Wash.). The vote was along party lines.  Murray's 10-year plan trims the deficit by $1.85 trillion but doesn’t bring the budget into balance.

Murray said one result of the plan would be to replace the mandatory "sequestration" budget cuts that began to hit federal programs on March 1.

Half of the $1.85 trillion would come from “responsible spending cuts across the federal budget,” including defense, nondefense, health care and interest on the federal debt, Murray said. The other $985 billion would come from “closing loopholes and cutting wasteful spending in the tax code for the wealthiest Americans and  biggest corporations,” she added

Murray said in a March 13 statement that her proposal includes a $100-billion “economic recovery protection plan." The $100 billion includes $50 billion for transportation infrastructure; $10 billion for ports, dams and waterways; $10 billion for a federal infrastructure bank: and $20 billion for school facilities and technology. The other $10 billion would go for worker training.

But President Obama has proposed a $50-billion infrastructure infusions three times since September 2011, and and Congress hasn't approved them.

Ryan’s budget is almost certain to clear the full House.  Murray would need to gain the votes of nearly all her Democratic colleagues to get her plan through the chamber. She has included a provision that would allow the resolution to pass by a simple majority, and not subject it to the 60-vote threshold required to block a filibuster.

The two budget chairs did sound bipartisan notes. Ryan said his proposal was "an invitation” to President Obama and Senate Democrats “to come together to fix these problems.” Murray said, "Despite the significant differences in the approaches we have taken, I am hopeful that we can work together toward a balanced, responsible and bipartisan deal." 

Still, partisan criticism of both plans is flying. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) slammed the Murray measure in a March 14 floor statement as “one of the most extreme, left-wing budgets of the modern era.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the budget commitees ranking Republican, said the Murray proposal "will never balance [and] likely add $7 trillion to the debt...."

Among Democrats, Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) said the House GOP proposal "is filled with deceptive gimmicks, far-fetched assumptions and phony arithmetic."
Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said that until Republicans move away from the Ryan plan, "We can't work together."

--with reporting from ENR Associate Editor Pam Hunter