- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Democratic-controlled Senate has passed a budget drafted to President Barack Obama’s specifications, voting a few hours after the House approved a similar plan.

The Senate vote was 55-43, along party lines.

The plan calls for spending of $3.5 trillion for the budget year beginning Oct. 1 and has a deficit projected at $1.2 trillion.

It provides for higher spending on domestic programs and clears the way for action later in the year on Obama’s call for an overhaul of health care, a new energy policy and changes in federal support for education.

The budget votes mark victories for the Obama administration, but tough battles lie ahead when lawmakers turn to the other items on the president’s agenda.

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

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Democratic-controlled House approved a budget blueprint drawn to President Barack Obama’s specifications Thursday and the Senate hastened to follow suit after administration allies rejected alternatives from liberals and conservatives alike.

The vote in the House was 233-196, largely along party lines, for a $3.6 trillion plan that includes a deficit of $1.2 trillion.

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.

But a Republican alternative fared poorly in the House, where 38 GOP lawmakers voted against a plan supported by their own leadership. Officials ascribed much of the opposition to a provision that called for eliminating traditional fee-for-service Medicare for individuals who reach age 65 in 2020 or later and replacing it with coverage from private insurance companies.

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.

The White House issued a statement hailing the House vote as “another step toward rebuilding our struggling economy.”

And 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.

There was no suspense on either side of the Capitol as lawmakers engaged in an annual budget ritual.

In the House, that meant voting first on doomed alternatives drafted by progressives, the Congressional Black Caucus 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 pared 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 House budget drew opposition from 20 Democrats as well as all 176 Republicans who voted.

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 the presidential 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 presenting lost-cause alternatives that reflected varying priorities.

The plan advanced by House Republicans, which failed 293-137, would have cut deeply into Obama’s recommended spending levels for domestic programs such as education, parks and transportation, while calling for additional tax cuts. Republicans said their alternative would have spent $4.8 trillion less than Obama’s budget over 10 years, with significantly lower deficits.

The Medicare proposal would have required anyone currently under 55 to obtain coverage from a private health plan when they turned 65. Their costs would be paid at least in part with government funds. Current Medicare recipients and near-retirees would not have been affected. Supporters said the change would prevent Medicare from going broke.

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.

Democrats lost a rare round in a long day of skirmishing when the Senate approved a non-binding proposal to cut the estate tax _ but without allowing the deficit to rise.

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