WASHINGTON -- Congress is about to fall down on its most basic job: writing a budget plan for the U.S. government.
Even though Republicans and Democrats are not far apart on many key spending priorities, lawmakers are so polarized in this election year that it seems unlikely they will adopt a budget resolution.
Such a resolution, which sets an annual ceiling on government spending, is supposed to be passed no later than Monday. But there's no final plan in sight.
That does not mean the government grinds to a halt. But it does mean -- without an overall budget cap -- it will be harder to keep lawmakers from adding pet spending projects to the appropriation bills that fund specific agencies and programs.
"We're in for a free-for-all," Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., said.
The situation could put tremendous pressure on President Bush, whose veto may loom as the only strong check on spending. Bush told Republican leaders last week he was prepared to wield his authority for the sake of fiscal discipline.
"He's itching to do it," Santorum said.
The partisan logjam on the budget resolution shows how much the climate has changed in Congress since the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when differences between the parties melted away and lawmakers quickly passed an array of complex measures.
Now Congress seems incapable of bridging differences large and small. The result is impasse on issues ranging from energy policy to the confirmation of judicial nominees. Even a bill to correct a grammatical error in an obscure 1925 statute on legal procedures has stalled in the Senate.
No issue is more fundamental to Congress' role as guardian of the public purse than the budget process that has guided government spending decisions since 1974.
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