Republican leaders in the House of Representatives failed late Thursday to gather enough votes to pass a budget resolution, a general blueprint for $2.7 trillion in government spending, putting off a vote on the legislation until after a two-week Easter break. Election year politics swirled around the debate
The annual debate on the budget always reflects political undercurrents at the time, and this year is no exception.
But in this legislative election year, with control of the House and Senate in the balance, debate has been particularly heated.
Democrats and Republicans say their respective arguments reflect the views of their constituents.
Republicans say their five-year budget plan seeks to restrain government spending, maintain economic growth, and bring down deficits.
"I believe this budget is the right budget in the plan to keep our country moving forward with a strong growing economy, with a secure homeland, to provide endless opportunities both today and tomorrow for our kids and our families," said Iowa Congressman Jim Nussle, chairman of the House Budget Committee.
Democrats accuse Republicans of targeting domestic social programs important to lower and middle class Americans, education, medicare, and food support, while seeking to make permanent tax cuts approved under President Bush that Democrats say favor the wealthy.
"This majority party is the biggest borrow and spend operation that we have ever seen in the U.S. Totally and completely irresponsible in their approach to dealing with the American people's money. As a result of that, the economic circumstances that we are confronting are becoming increasingly difficult," said New York Democrat Maurice Hinchey on the floor of the House
Republicans also face problems from within their own ranks, as fiscally-conservative lawmakers complain that their leadership has not done enough to control spending.
Indiana Congressman Mike Pence has been one of the biggest Republican proponents of cutting back government spending, often criticizing his own leadership. [We need to] "sharpen our pencils, and put our fiscal house in order, and I hope that when we pass a budget this week it will reflect those priorities," he said.
At the same time Pence and other Republicans say their position on spending should not obscure what they say is the fact that Democrats remain the party of big government and spending.
The realities of the budget problem are clear for both political parties in this election year.
Under President Bush government spending has gone up by more than 30 percent, with the biggest increases coming with the military, homeland security and counter-terrorism.
Leading to November congressional elections, Republicans will face the harshest criticism from Democrats over efforts to reduce the rise in spending on discretionary programs like health care, education and scientific research, at least two of which President Bush has claimed as priorities.
While they accuse Republicans of fiscal irresponsibility Democrats know the tables could be turned if, as they hope, they regain control of Congress and face difficult budget choices themselves.
Adding to the unknowns will be tens of billions of dollars in additional costs in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as reconstruction in the U.S. Gulf Coast.
The Senate has already passed its own budget resolution, with substantial differences with the House version.