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Lawmakers watch time pass

Rep. Mark Murdock, R-Ottertail, uses down time Sunday to catch up on work at his desk on the Minnesota House floor. Staff photo by Scott Wente - Minn. State Capitol Bureau

ST. PAUL - Sen. Rod Skoe sat at his desk in the Senate chamber Sunday evening, watching a Minnesota House debate on his laptop computer.

Skoe serves on a House-Senate tax conference committee that often is hard at work in a legislative session's final days, but that committee has done little since Gov. Tim Pawlenty issued a budget-balancing ultimatum Thursday.

So Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, and other lawmakers not in leadership positions watched as the Legislature's constitutional deadline to adjourn - midnight tonight - neared without signs of a budget agreement.

The outlook dimmed as hours passed.

"Obviously, if people change their position, there is time, but it's the compromising that's the hardest part at this point," Skoe said.

Republicans said they want to see Pawlenty and Democrats who control the Legislature to agree on a new two-year budget, but are ready to go home and explain why Pawlenty's unilateral budget-balancing strategy was necessary.

"If he'd have not decided to do it, we could have been here until July," said freshman Rep. Mark Murdock, R-Ottertail.

Lawmakers said the uncertainty of the session's closing days is the result of Pawlenty's surprise announcement Thursday that he would balance the budget on his own if there is no budget deal with Democrats who control the Legislature.

"It's different than I've ever seen it," Sen. Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, said of the Legislature's closing days. "It's just trying to see who's going to budge first."

Vickerman said Sunday he saw little effort by legislators to work toward a budget deal, and worried about how Pawlenty would balance the budget on his own.

As budget negotiations appeared at a standstill, House Democrats attempted to overturn Pawlenty vetoes of a health-care spending cut and a bill that would raise taxes $1 billion.

Republicans said for months they would uphold Pawlenty vetoes, and said Democrats were squandering valuable time.

"Everybody who ran in this chamber knew that there was a crisis," Republican Rep. Pat Garofalo of Farmington said of a $4.6 billion deficit. "Why is the Legislature not passing a balanced budget?"

Garofalo said it is "embarrassing" that the Legislature is down to its final hours of the year and lawmakers did not complete the work they knew was ahead of them months ago.

"We all look bad," he said.

Skoe said he wants Democrats to pass a bill in the session's closing hours that raises nearly $1 billion in new revenue to help balance the budget. Lawmakers need to find a way to raise money that cannot be called a tax, Skoe said.

"And Gov. Pawlenty will have to decide if he can sign it or not," he said.

Rep. Dave Olin said he will have no trouble defending Democratic lawmakers' budget proposal if no agreement is reached and Pawlenty cuts spending himself.

"I'm confident we've done what we could do," said Olin, DFL-Thief River Falls. "Whether or not there are changes, I've done the best I can do for my district."

Vickerman, who has been in the Legislature more than 20 years, said much can happen in the session's final hours - if there is the desire.

"I've seen this come together in the last 15 minutes," he mused. "You've got to believe in miracles if you work in this place."