A deep rift in the Republican Party has left Congress unable to pass a budget this year, raising the probability that, for the third time in three decades, lawmakers will not agree on a detailed blueprint for government spending and tax policy.

The budget meltdown was triggered by a feud between conservative Republicans who favor continuing to cut taxes in the face of record budget deficits and GOP moderates who are pushing for curbs on tax cuts and are reluctant to slash spending. Even a face-saving effort in the House to impose federal spending curbs blew up just after midnight Friday when 72 Republicans joined a united Democratic Party to torpedo the leadership-backed bill.

Substitute “Assembly” for “Congress” and this could be a lead in the Richmond Times Dispatch last March. It seems what happened in the this past session of the Commonwealth’s General Assembly is being replayed at the national level, where moderate Republicans are pushing back against the rabid tax-cutters who have hijacked the party. The Washington Post reports.

Both conservative and moderate Republicans say the fight is over the future of their party. Neither side has given an inch. So, two months after the House and Senate passed budget blueprints for the fiscal year that begins in October, Republican negotiators have hit a brick wall in trying to reconcile the two plans.

… At issue is the future of tax cutting in the face of budget deficits that will swell well above $400 billion this year. Senate Democrats, joined by Republicans John McCain (Ariz.), Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), Susan Collins (Maine) and Lincoln D. Chafee (R.I.), secured an amendment to the Senate budget that would force any future tax cuts to be offset by equivalent spending cuts or tax increases. House Republicans, pushed hard by the White House, refused to go along, demanding instead that such rules apply only to spending increases for Medicare, Medicaid and other entitlements.

If it continues, the fight could eventually have significant practical implications. Since President Bush came to office, Congress has passed tax cuts worth $1.7 trillion over 10 years, but all will expire by 2011, many before then. If the Senate’s “pay-as-you-go” — or “paygo” — budget rules are in place then, lawmakers will be faced with allowing tax levels to abruptly return to the higher levels of Bill Clinton’s presidency or cutting federal spending by hundreds of billions of dollars a year to preserve the Bush tax cuts.

Congress is different than the Virginia House of Delegates, of course. (Hell, Congress is often different from a lot, including reality.) At the federal level, there can be budget deficits; Virginia must pass a balanced budget.

Just like in Virginia, however, conservative Congressional Republicans have managed to be their own worst enemies.

Without a budget, the Senate will lack parliamentary language that would allow senators to extend three expiring tax cuts with a simple majority vote in the 100-member body. Instead, Senate leaders will have to gather at least 60 votes to ensure that taxes do not rise at the end of the year.

House Republican leaders had also hoped to use the budget to quietly raise the $7.4 trillion federal debt limit, which the government could hit before the end of the summer. Without a budget, that limit may have to be raised by a separate vote on the House floor, which is political castor oil for Republicans in an election year.

And just like in Virginia, the national GOP leaders live in la-la land.

There are limits to the effectiveness of spending cuts. Even if Congress had eliminated every penny of the $438 billion in domestic discretionary spending this year, every education and health program, every homeland security effort, national park, interstate highway and federal prison, the government would still find itself in the red.

When House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) called the budget fiasco “Republican Budget Failure Redux,” he might have been referring to this year’s Virginia General Assembly.

You might want to drop an email, especially if you’re a Republican, thanking Snowe, McCain, Chaffee and Collins for standing up for prudent, responsible budgeting.