- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 26, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - A key Senate panel stacked with allies of President Barack Obama approved his ambitious budget blueprint Thursday, giving the president a symbolic endorsement of efforts to boost clean energy, fight global warming and improve access to health care.

Senate Budget Committee approval by a party-line vote sets the stage for floor debate next week, where moderate Democrats unhappy with deficits wield more influence. The Senate measure is a nonbinding road map for major legislation later this year on health care, energy and education.

But general agreements on fighting global warming and boosting health care promise to be severely tested later in the year as details are penciled in.

The Senate plan and its House counterpart will both go to the floors of their respective chambers next week over passionate protests from Republicans, who warn of big spending increases and record deficits.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., armed with a comfortable 58-41 Senate majority, said a handful of Democrats will oppose the budget plan next week but that “I feel very comfortable that we’re going to be able to pass the budget.”

Unlike regular legislation, the annual budget resolution _ which doesn’t get signed by the president _ can advance with a simple majority vote.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C. expressed confidence that the House plan would pass in that chamber. “It’s looking good,” he said.

Both the House and Senate budget plans lack specifics for any of the administration’s signature proposals on global warming and clean energy or even clues on how Democrats plan to accomplish goals like raising more than $1 trillion over the next decade to provide universal health coverage.

Curbing global warming is welcomed as a general goal, but both budget panels were careful to avoid endorsing Obama’s controversial cap-and-trade system for auctioning pollution permits, which will raise energy costs for consumers and businesses.

Under Congress’ arcane budget legislative process, lawmakers devise a nonbinding budget resolution that sets the terms for subsequent legislation. As a practical matter, the budget provides a pot of money to the appropriations panels to fund Cabinet agencies’ annual budgets. But it also serves as a way to define party goals.

The House and Senate plans both call for spending less than Obama’s $3.7 trillion proposal for next year, mostly by ignoring his request for an additional bailout of the financial industry, with additional savings plotted for future years.

The House plan foresees a deficit of $1.2 trillion for 2010 but would cut that to $598 billion after five years. The comparable Senate estimates are $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 _ and would grow to unsustainable levels exceeding 5 percent of the economy by the end of the decade.

For their part, House Republicans unveiled their response to Obama’s budget plan Thursday in a glossy pamphlet short on detail and long on campaign-style talking points. Among the few details was a promise to simplify the tax code and cut income tax rates to 10 percent for people making $100,000 or less.

Republicans pointed out budgetary sleights of hand in the congressional plans, such as abandoning Obama’s promises for permanent relief from the alternative minimum tax and other politically essential legislation, such as money to shelter doctors from cutbacks in payments they receive for serving Medicare patients.

During Senate panel debate Thursday, Democrats shot down a series of GOP amendments, including a plan by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., to save $200 billion by freezing spending on non-defense domestic programs for the next two years and allowing modest increases in the future.

The panel also defeated an amendment by top panel Republican Judd Gregg of New Hampshire to block Democrats from passing a health care reform bill that uses deficit dollars to finance a health care reform bill in the first six years of the plan.

On taxes, the Democrats followed Obama’s lead in agreeing to extend many of the Bush-era tax cuts that were enacted in 2001 and 2003. An exception was made in the case of cuts that applied to upper-income wage earners.

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