Late night: Senate Democrats work to pass budget
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate labored into the wee hours Saturday as Democrats pushed their first budget in four years toward passage, calling for almost $1 trillion in tax increases over the coming decade while sheltering safety net programs targeted by House Republicans. The Democrats also would reverse automatic spending cuts that are beginning to strike both the Pentagon and domestic programs.
The nonbinding but politically symbolic measure caters to party stalwarts on the liberal edge of the spectrum just as the House GOP measure is crafted to appeal to more recent tea party arrivals.
Lawmakers plowed through a mountain of amendments, having voted on more than 60 since the chamber began debating the plan earlier this week. As the clock neared 3 a.m. EDT, senators huddled in an apparent effort to determine how many more votes would be needed until they could approve the measure, which appeared inevitable.
Many of the proposals were offered in hopes of inflicting political damage on Democratic senators up for re-election in GOP-leaning states like Alaska and Louisiana.
Some $1 trillion in new revenue would flow to the government over the coming decade — on top of more than $600 billion in taxes on upper-income earners approved in January — and would be coupled with a net $875 billion in spending cuts. Those reductions would be generated by modest cuts to federal health care programs, domestic agencies and the Pentagon and reduced government borrowing costs. The budget proposes $100 billion in new spending for infrastructure projects and job training programs.
The president will reveal his own overdue tax-and-spending plan in two weeks, a plan that will be judged in part by whether it offers new, more politically risky proposals that could form the foundation for a bipartisan agreement between the two houses.
Senators braced for dozens of votes during a marathon session running late on Friday, with some predicting a final vote on the Democratic plan in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday. In early voting Friday morning, Democrats rejected the latest attempt to repeal Obama’s landmark health care law by a strictly party-line vote.
The Senate has already taken several politically freighted votes, including a move by Democrats to force a vote on the Paul Ryan House budget, which was rejected by a 59-40 vote Thursday night, with five Republicans joining every Democratic senator in opposition.
Republicans countered with a move by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., putting Democrats on record in opposition to balancing the budget by the end of the decade. It failed on a near party-line vote.
Additional votes on Friday could feature forays into off-topics like supersized soft drinks, domestic drone strikes, handguns and abortion — in addition to the more traditional subjects of taxes, spending and debt.
Such tallies give lawmakers the chance to test support for their ideas in the modern Senate, where there are far fewer opportunities to offer amendments and obtain votes. Such votes are nonbinding. Seventeen Democrats joined Republicans to endorse the Keystone XL pipeline that is to carry oil from Canada to Texas oil refineries. And after a bipartisan 75-24 test vote, the Senate endorsed an amendment by Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo. — backed by the powerful retailer lobby — that would allow states to collect sales taxes on Internet purchases made out of state.
It all concerned a largely symbolic measure known as a budget resolution, not binding legislation that could be sent to the president to become law. The Senate budget measure and the starkly different version passed by the House on Thursday seek to set parameters for follow-up legislation on taxes and spending.
The dueling House and Senate budget plans are anchored on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum in Washington. No Democrats voted for the House budget, and not a single Republican will vote for the Senate plan, written by new Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash. The GOP plan caters to tea party forces, while Murray was forced to reach out to liberals, rather than revive proposals such as increasing out-of-pocket Medicare costs for better off beneficiaries that were discussed when she co-chaired a failed 2011 deficit “supercommittee.”
While the House GOP plan seeks $4.6 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years on top of the $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts in the same timeframe. Murray’s plan promises to replace the $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts, required under a hard-fought 2011 budget pact because of the failure of Washington follow up that deal with another deficit-cutting plan. She notes that they were never intended to take effect and were instead aimed at forcing Republicans and Democrats into a deal. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office warns the $85 billion in cuts set to strike the economy this year could cost 750,000 jobs.
Murray combines $975 billion in unspecified tax increases with net cuts in spending of $875 billion to replace the automatic cuts. The plan promises a $693 billion deficit in 2014, dropping to the $400 billion range for the middle years of the decade. While large, such deficits would hover just above 2 percent of gross domestic product, a level that many analysts see as economically sustainable.
All told, the slashing House budget projects $4 trillion more in deficit cuts than the Murray plan, but only by assuming cuts to Medicaid, food stamps and farm programs, among others — and cutting domestic agency spending covering such areas as education, the FBI, NASA and housing subsidies by almost 20 percent next year.
The Democratic plan sticks to agency budget “caps” set in the 2011 deal and leaves safety-net programs for the poor virtually alone. Its cuts to the rapidly spiraling Medicare program are limited to health care providers and are less stringent than those proposed by Obama.
“The Senate budget puts forward serious, responsible deficit reduction that reflects the recommendations of bipartisan experts, and the values and priorities of the American people,” Murray said.
Senate Republicans did not draft a budget plan of their own, though 40 of them voted for the House GOP measure. Instead, they focused their fire on the Democratic version, saying it does nothing about the rapidly rising costs of Medicare and other benefit programs, while allowing the national debt to reach $24.4 trillion by 2023.
“In addition to having these huge tax increases — the biggest in the history of the country — this budget also has huge spending,” said Sen. Rob. Portman, R-Ohio. “The spending is actually an increase when you wipe away all the gimmicks.”