HARRISBURG - House Democrats are making a risky gambit to break the budget deadlock: They're planning to vote Monday on the bare-bones Senate Republican spending plan with a painful $1.7 billion in additional cuts, conceding they don't have the votes for an income-tax increase.
House Majority Leader Todd Eachus (D., Luzerne) and other leaders said they would allow floor debate on the Senate bill, which was approved in that chamber two months ago along party lines.
"We're going to give the Republicans in the House exactly what they've been asking for," Eachus said.
House Republican leaders said yesterday that they would introduce an amendment to balance the Senate Republican budget today, but provided no details.
Rep. Mario Civera (R., Delaware), the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, told reporters the income-tax increase was dead, but House Speaker Keith McCall (D., Carbon) said it was still on the table.
As the new fiscal year enters its second week without a budget in place, some are praising the Democrats' move as a way to get the process rolling. Others are calling it an act of political gamesmanship.
Gov. Rendell's spokesman said it was a fresh attempt at responding to Senate Republicans, who have refused to consider any tax increases proposed by Rendell, a Democrat, to close a $3.3 billion budget gap.
"The Republicans have taken a stand that they want a no-new-revenue budget, so we will produce a document that reflects that budgetary philosophy, and see whether that gains legislative support," said Rendell's spokesman, Chuck Ardo.
McCall said the Republican plan plus any additional cuts would mean job losses and widespread service cutbacks.
"That is not a scare tactic. That's reality," McCall said. "There's going to be pain and suffering."
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) said yesterday that he found it "incomprehensible" that Democrats, who control the House by 104-99, had yet to take floor action on any budget bill, whether the governor's plan or Senate Bill 850.
He said that if Rendell's nearly $29 billion proposal - which includes a temporary 16 percent increase in the personal income tax - had support among Democrats in the House, they would have passed it by now.
"Their job is to legislate, to debate and vote on bills," Pileggi said of House members. "If they have one obligation, it is to pass the budget once a year. And they haven't done that. It's nonperformance of their duties.
"We're long past the time of making points. We have the reality of state workers who will not be receiving their full paychecks next week. It's time to legislate."
Senate Minority Leader Bob Mellow (D., Lackawanna) countered that negotiating a budget must be a bipartisan process, and that the hard-line antitax position taken by Republicans has left little room for that.
He said it would not make sense for Democrats in the House to follow that tactic by voting on Rendell's proposed budget, only to see it face certain defeat in the Senate.
As a result, Democrats are left little choice but to take up S.B. 850, the $27.3 billion spending plan that Mellow believes will be devastating to communities across the state. Mellow, for one, said he supported a temporary tax increase to help keep funding alive for key social, economic-development, and education programs.
"This is not a game," he said. "This is serious, serious business. And it's going to affect the lives of millions of people."
But some observers say the strategy appears political and could leave Rendell with a budget he would be loath to sign.
"In a certain sense, this is a phony budget aimed at forcing the Republicans to negotiate on Democratic terms," said G. Terry Madonna, a pollster and political analyst at Franklin and Marshall College. "I don't think the governor in his heart of hearts thinks this is a budget that makes sense."
Madonna said that could leave Rendell having to go line by line through the budget to veto cuts he had proposed with the Democrats.
The pressure is increasing on the House to take action on the budget, with 69,000 government employees set to receive partial paychecks next week.