- The Washington Times - Friday, April 3, 2009

The House and Senate Thursday each passed their versions of the 2010 budget that omitted some of President Obama’s key priorities on energy and taxes, while pushing off big decisions about health care reform for a later day.

The record $3.6 trillion budget plan that passed in the House by a 233-196 vote gives congressional Democrats the option to use a parliamentary short cut to push through Mr. Obama’s top policy goals and avoid a filibuster by Senate Republicans. The Senate budget version, which passed 55-43, does not include the fast-track procedure known as “reconciliation.”

No Republicans in either chamber voted for the budgets, while 20 House Democrats and two Senate Democrats Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Evan Bayh of Indiana voted against it.

Mr. Obama hailed the votes from Europe, where he is in the middle of his first major international trip, saying the budgets they passed would help rebuild the economy and that the plans fund “our most fundamental priorities.”

The House and Senate versions both project a 2010 federal deficit of at least $1.2 trillion, in line with Mr. Obama’s estimate.

While broadly tracking Mr. Obama’s budget proposal, the House and Senate versions fell short of administration hopes on a number of fronts.

Mr. Obama suffered another setback Thursday when the Senate voted 51-48 to cut the estate tax rate much deeper than he had proposed. Ten Democrats joined all 41 Republicans in supporting the change.

Where Mr. Obama wanted a 45 percent rate for couples with estates of $7 million or more, the Senate agreed to exempt $10 million estates and to set a rate of 35 percent. The move will force lawmakers to find $100 billion over 10 years from elsewhere in the budget.

Earlier this week, the Senate voted 67-31 against allowing Mr. Obama’s plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions to be considered on the budget fast-track process.

The overwhelming vote is not binding on the House and Senate negotiators who will write the final compromise, but Republicans said the strong opposition will go a long way toward tying Democrats’ hands.

But the vote also suggests that getting any major energy bill passed, even under normal rules, will be difficult which was one reason Democratic leaders were eager to use the fast-track option and cut off a filibuster.

Democrats signaled that they are increasingly likely to try to include the reconciliation weapon in the final House-Senate compromise bill that will be hammered out as lawmakers begin a scheduled two-week break. The procedure would short-circuit Senate Republicans’ ability to filibuster top Obama priorities such as health care and possibly a plan to address climate change.

“We hope to have that bipartisanship,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat. “But at the end of the day, if bipartisanship does not yield health care reform, then we’ll have to move to reconciliation, and we hope that that will be the course the Senate will agree to take as well.”

Republicans one likening reconciliation to an “act of war” have incorporated the maneuver on budget resolutions in years past on tax cuts and oil drilling, but objected to its use in this instance.

“If you want to eliminate the need for a United States Senate, all you have to do is bring these bills through reconciliation. Then you avoid that requirement of 60 votes,” said Sen. Mike Johanns, Nebraska Republican.

Senate Finance Committee #Chairman Max Baucus last week predicted “partisan warfare” if Democrats on Capitol Hill pushed to ram health care reforms through Congress using the reconciliation process.

But the Montana Democrat’s rhetoric on reconciliation softened this week when Mr. Baucus said he wouldn’t take the option “off the table.”

In a marathon round of voting on amendments, the Senate rejected Mr. Obama’s plan to fund part of his health care expansion by reducing the tax deduction wealthy individuals can take for charitable donations.

“The Senate sent a clear message to the president that we do not support increasing taxes on charitable contributions to try to cover the costs of health care reform,” said Sen. Robert F. Bennett, Utah Republican, who sponsored the amendment.

But the Senate endorsed Mr. Obama’s ability to spend financial bailout funds as he sees fit, voting 70-28 against an amendment by Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, to stop $272 billion in payments.

Senators overwhelmingly rejected Sen. John McCain’s alternative budget that would have capped non-defense, non-veteran discretionary spending and reduced entitlement spending by $3.2 trillion over 10 years compared with Mr. Obama’s budget. The vote was 60-38 against the Arizona Republican’s plan.

In the House, Democrats defeated a series of alternative budgets from Republicans as well as the conservative, progressive and black caucuses.

“This is a tough budget,” said Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat. “The Budget Committee made tough decisions, but they were right decisions.”

The sharp party breakdown on the final House vote was another blow to Mr. Obama’s early hopes of bipartisan support for his economic program.

A Republican alternative plan, which would have spent less and tackled entitlements, fell on a vote of 293-173.

“Yes, we need to cut spending,” said Rep. Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican and author of the Republican budget. “Wow, I said it. Holy cow in Washington.”

Congress will hammer out the differences between the two chambers’ resolutions when it returns from recess in mid-April.

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