- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 30, 2009

Congress signed off on President Obama’s $3.6 trillion budget largely along party lines Wednesday night, handing him a legislative victory that paves the way for a health care overhaul.

The Senate cleared the plan by a vote of 53 to 43 after the House passed it 223 to 193. Not a single Republican in either chamber voted for the measure. Democratic defections included Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Pennsylvania’s former Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, all of whom joined 17 House Democrats in voting no.

The budget - a nonbinding resolution meant to guide congressional spending - includes a fast-track provision that would block a Senate filibuster on Mr. Obama’s bid to transform the health care system, as well as his plan to change student lending.

In remarks prepared for his evening news conference, Mr. Obama said the budget “builds on the steps we’ve taken over the last 100 days to move this economy from recession to recovery and ultimately to prosperity.”

House and Senate budget chiefs trimmed Mr. Obama’s original $3.6 trillion budget proposal, leaving out certain items, such as additional bailout funding, and scaling back his “Make work pay” tax cut. Lawmakers also opted against reducing the level of charitable tax deductions taken by wealthy Americans.

But the blueprint preserves many of Mr. Obama’s initiatives and tees up efforts by congressional committees to expand government-subsidized health care. It also implements an administration-backed plan to cap greenhouse gas emissions, though it stipulates that the final budget specify how to finance both reforms. Because health care was included under a procedural mechanism known as “reconciliation,” Mr. Obama’s health care plan will require only 51 votes to pass the Senate.

“I think it’s a good beginning,” Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad said after the vote. “I do think it is putting us on the right trajectory in the first five years and we have captured the president’s major priorities.”

However, North Dakota’s Mr. Conrad noted, lawmakers must pass tax and entitlement reform “if we’re going to get the country on a sustainable course.”

The budget aims to cut the deficit from an expected $1.2 trillion this year to $523 billion by 2014. The total national debt would skyrocket from $11.2 trillion to $17 trillion.

Republicans, who have used reconciliation in the past to push through the Bush tax cuts and other items, protested its use for health care. They also seized on the budget’s overall spending level, saying it threatens future generations.

“I don’t want a legacy of stealing opportunity from my grandchildren or anybody else’s,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, who described the plan as “an escape from responsibility.”

A deal on the budget was only reached after Democrats agreed to demands from conservative Blue Dogs to consider legislation, known as pay-go, to help control spending. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland have pledged to do so in a letter, while Mr. Obama has reportedly promised to help push the cause in the Senate.

• Kara Rowland can be reached at krowland@washingtontimes.com.

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