The Senate on Wednesday rejected every single budget being offered this year, leaving the chamber — and therefore the federal government — without a plan to address Medicare, Social Security and the other major entitlement programs that are driving deficits and debt.
In repeated votes, Democrats who control the chamber defeated four Republican proposals, including a plan that passed the House in March. The entire Senate also unanimously rejected President Obama's 2013 budget, voting 99-0 against it, following a 414-0 vote against it in the House earlier this year.
"A stunning development for the president of the United States in his fourth year in office," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican.
Congress is required by law to pass a budget by April 15, then write the annual spending and tax laws to carry out the budget's targets.
But for the third straight year, Democrats didn't offer a plan of their own in the Senate. The last time it did pass one was in 2009, when Democrats controlled all the levers and wrote the measure that paved the way for them to pass Mr. Obama's health care law.
Democrats called Wednesday's votes a distraction, saying the results were preordained and pointing to the fact that even some Republicans couldn't vote for any of the plans.
Indeed, four Republicans joined all 53 Democrats in voting down all of the options: Sens. Scott P. Brown of Massachusetts, Dean Heller of Nevada and Susan M. Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine. Mr. Brown and Mr. Heller are both in tight re-election races, while Mrs. Snowe is retiring.
"Today's votes were not a serious effort to pass a budget," Mr. Heller said. "Both sides of the aisle are at fault. Americans watching this debate witnessed exactly what they've come to expect from Washington: Republicans blaming Democrats, Democrats blaming Republicans."
Wednesday's debate centered on four GOP plans: One that passed the House last month, one written by Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, another by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and a final one by Sen. Mike Lee of Utah.
Mr. Toomey's plan actually did the best, garnering 42 votes — still well shy of a majority. It topped the House GOP's plan, written by Rep. Paul Ryan, which only garnered 41 votes.
Mr. Toomey's plan adopts some of Mr. Ryan's elements, including the changes to Medicare, but cuts deeper, lowering basic spending in 2013 to $985 billion — a level last seen in 2005.
It would still rack up deficits of $1.9 trillion over the next decade, but that's far below the $6.4 trillion in added deficits in Mr. Obama's budget or the $3.1 trillion in Mr. Ryan's plan.
"My colleagues on the other side refuse even to debate our fiscal crisis, let alone introduce a fiscal blueprint for solving our country's problems," Mr. Toomey said. "Instead of lobbing political attacks at the ideas I and my Republican colleagues have put forward, it is incumbent upon the majority party to put forward ideas of its own. Anything less is a flagrant abdication of its governing responsibility."
But Democrats said Mr. Toomey's plan, and the rest of the budgets the GOP offered, cut taxes too deeply. Democrats have vowed that any long-term spending plan must raise taxes on those with higher incomes, saying that's the only way to achieve a balanced outcome.
"Democrats won't agree to a one-sided solution that lets the superwealthy off the hook while forcing the middle class to bear all the hardship," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. "These four stunt budgets all take that one-sided approach."
Both Mr. Lee and Mr. Paul cut even deeper than Mr. Toomey, with Mr. Paul's budget even leading to a surplus over the next 10 years. But those plans, which relied on severe cuts to basic spending and entitlement programs, couldn't even attract most Republicans. Mr. Lee's plan was defeated 82-17, and Mr. Paul's plan failed 83-16.
Democrats said there is no need for a budget this year, arguing that last year's debt deal — which, unlike budgets, is actually signed into law — already sets the annual discretionary spending levels in law for 2013.
Under the terms of that deal, discretionary spending is slated to hit $1.047 trillion in 2013, $1.066 trillion in 2014, and grow to reach $1.234 trillion in 2021.
But the debt deal did not affect entitlement spending, which includes Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and the other formula-driven programs that are the chief drivers of long-term deficits.
Instead of writing a budget this year, Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat and chairman of the Budget Committee, said Congress should go back and begin to debate the recommendations of the Bowles-Simpson fiscal commission, which called for tax increases and spending cuts in its December 2010 report.
"The place we agree is, we have a long-term problem for this country we must address," Mr. Conrad said.
A key group of both Republicans and Democrats argues that report, written by former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson, is likely to serve as the basis of a year-end agreement when Congress faces the expiration of the 2001, 2003 and payroll-tax cuts; the looming automatic spending cuts from last year's debt deal; and yet another debt-ceiling increase.
The Bowles-Simpson plan called for lowering overall tax rates but also for eliminating most tax loopholes, with some of the extra revenue going to reduce deficits. It also put limits on discretionary spending, including defense spending.
A version of the Bowles-Simpson plan was defeated 382-38 in the House in March.
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