- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Democratic-controlled House has approved a budget blueprint drawn to President Barack Obama’s specifications. And the Senate is ready to follow suit.

The developments come on a day administration allies rejected alternatives advanced by liberals and conservatives alike.

The budgets in the House and Senate call for higher spending on domestic programs and clear the way for action later in the year on Obama’s priority items of health care, energy and education.

Republicans in both houses contend the plans spend and tax too much and will leave the nation with deficits that are too big.

But the House vote Thursday was 233-196, along party lines.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Congressional Democrats cast aside budget alternatives backed by conservatives and liberals alike on Thursday, a prelude to House and Senate passage of spending blueprints drawn to President Barack Obama’s specifications.

The country wants “real change, and we have come here to make a difference,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said as both chambers worked on plans to boost spending on domestic programs, raise taxes on the wealthy in two years’ time and clear the way for action later in the year on Obama’s priority items of health care, energy and education.

Republicans in both houses accused Democrats of drafting plans that would hurt the recession-ravaged economy in the long run, rather than help it, and saddle future generations with too much debt.

“The administration’s budget simply taxes too much, spends too much and borrows too much at a moment when we can least afford it,” said the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Despite the rhetoric, there was no suspense as lawmakers engaged in an annual budget ritual destined to end in approval of the blueprints drafted by Obama’s supporters and supported by the White House.

In the House, that meant voting first on doomed alternatives drafted by progressives, the Congressional Black Caucus, Republicans and a splinter group of conservatives. In the Senate, it meant a day of sifting through nonbinding proposals often meant to score political points.

The House plan called for spending $3.6 trillion in the budget year that begins Oct. 1, according to the Congressional Budget Office, compared with $3.5 trillion for the Senate version and $3.6 trillion for Obama’s original plan.

The House plan envisioned a deficit of $1.2 trillion for 2010, falling to a projected $598 billion after five years. The comparable Senate estimates were $1.2 trillion in 2010 and $508 billion in 2014.

Obama’s budget would leave a deficit of $749 billion in five years’ time, according to congressional estimates _ too high for his Democratic allies.

To reduce the red ink, Democrats reduced Obama’s proposed spending, ignored his call for another $250 billion in bailout money for the financial industry and assumed that his signature tax cuts of $400 for individuals and $800 for couples would expire in 2011.

The day’s events capped a busy three months for the Democratic-controlled Congress that took office in January.

Moving with unusual speed, lawmakers have enacted a $787 billion economic stimulus measure, cleared the way for release of $350 billion in financial industry bailout funds, approved an expansion of children’s health care and sent Obama legislation setting aside more than 2 million acres in nine states as protected wilderness.

While they represented victories for the administration, the budgets merely cleared the way for work later in the year on key presidential priorities _ expansion and overhaul of the nation’s health care system, creation of a new energy policy and sweeping changes in education.

Major battles lie ahead, particularly over health care and energy. And while Obama made a series of specific proposals to fund his initiatives, congressional budget-writers avoided taking a position on his recommended curtailing of Medicare spending, for example, or imposing hundreds of billions of dollars in new costs on the nation’s polluters.

The budget plans do not require Obama’s signature, but the House and Senate will have to reconcile the two versions before they can move onto the next phase of Obama’s agenda.

“We are not that far apart,” said Rep. John Spratt, the South Carolina Democrat who chairs the House Budget Committee.

One difference, seemingly arcane, involved the ground rules to cover work later in the year on health care.

The House budget provides for a “fast-track” procedure that would bar Senate Republicans from attempting to filibuster the legislation Obama wants to remake the nation’s health care system. Republicans have warned that the prospects for bipartisanship will all but vanish if majority Democrats attempt to muzzle them.

In a long day of debate in the House, Democratic liberals and Republican conservatives took turns Thursday presenting lost-cause alternatives that reflected varying priorities.

The Progressive Caucus advanced a plan to spend hundreds of billions more on domestic programs than Obama, while cutting back on his defense budget. It failed, 348-84.

Next came a proposal from the conservative Republican Study Conference that would have cut Obama’s domestic spending proposals, and reduced taxes. It was defeated, 322-111.

The Congressional Black Caucus proposed immediately repealing Bush-era tax cuts for wealthy taxpayers, while adding a new tax on couples making over $1 million. It called for greater spending on domestic programs,including education, transportation and job training. It fell, 318-113.

House Republicans presented a comprehensive alternative, including a provision to eliminate the current traditional Medicare program as an option for anyone currently under 55. Upon turning 65, their Medicare coverage would come only from plans operated by private insurance companies. Their costs would be paid at least in part with government funds.

Supporters said the change would prevent Medicare from going broke.

The same proposal would have cut deeply into Obama’s recommended spending levels for domestic programs such as education, parks and transportation, while cutting a variety of taxes and making sure that Bush-era tax cuts on the wealthy remained in existence.

Republicans said their alternative would have spent $4.8 trillion less than Obama’s budget over 10 years, with significantly lower deficits.

Senate Republicans decided not to produce a comprehensive alternative budget, although Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and others advanced one that would have retained Bush-era tax cuts, spent more on defense, and curbed spending on Medicare and other programs. It failed, 60-38, on a near-party line vote.

Republicans also worked to limit Democratic options later in the year. They put the Senate on record against using fast-track rules to implement Obama’s energy policy, which they said would impose a new energy tax of hundreds of millions of dollars.

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