Republican negotiators announced they’d reached a deal Wednesday on a unified federal budget, marking the first time in six years that the annual spending process will be governed by a full blueprint, and setting the stage for cuts in health and welfare spending plus a boost in defense.
Projected spending would be cut by $5 trillion over 10 years, erasing the annual deficit by the end of that period without raising taxes — though it does make use of some money-shifting that Democrats decried as gimmicks. The budget also instructs Congress to use a fast-track tool, known as “reconciliation,” to try to repeal Obamacare.
The last time Congress wrote a full budget was 2009, when Democrats controlled both chambers and President Obama was in his first year in office. Now, with the GOP holding majorities in both chambers, Republican leaders said writing a budget was proof they can govern.
“Now that the Senate is under new management, we are getting back to work rebuilding the trust of hard-working Americans and doing the people’s business,” said Senate Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi, Wyoming Republican.
The conference report is late — the law calls for a final budget to be approved by April 15 — and GOP leaders had to wait even longer than they’d anticipated after one of their own negotiators, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, refused to sign off on the deal, objecting to the “gimmicks.”
He relented Wednesday, though, saying the budget was an improvement.
“There is no question this budget is far from perfect, but it is some progress since it has been a long time since the Congress has completed this basic part of governing,” Mr. Corker said. “I have had conversations on both sides of the Capitol laying out what I believe we need to do to prepare for next year’s budget process so that we can make much greater progress toward addressing the tremendous fiscal challenges our country faces.”
The budget is nonbinding and doesn’t require the president’s signature, though it will still need to clear both the House and Senate in final votes later this week.
The blueprint will determine how much Congress can spend in the 12 annual appropriations bills that fund the basic operations of government. The budget also sets out instructions to committees for changes to the tax code or to mandatory spending such as Obamacare.
House Republicans are already moving ahead in writing the spending bills to the levels set in the budget, which are well below what Democrats and Mr. Obama want.
The White House threatened to veto both appropriations bills already moving through the House, and congressional Democrats railed against the plan as a one-sided bid to put the wealthy over middle-class Americans.
“The Republican budget isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. It’s gonna go nowhere,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.
Budget watchdogs said the GOP plan used trickery to achieve balance, repealing Obamacare while keeping its tax hikes and failing to account for GOP-driven changes to the tax code.
“A budget resolution is only as good as the enforcement tools it contains and the willingness of Congress to follow through,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “With the recent enactment of the $140 billion unpaid-for ‘doc fix’ bill, and over $400 billion of unaccounted-for tax cuts already passed in the House, the gap between words and deeds appears to be quite large.”
The GOP boosts defense spending by shifting $38 billion in new funding to an emergency war account, which means it won’t be cut by the automatic sequesters that are still in place from a 2011 spending deal.
Democrats say any increase in defense spending should be coupled dollar-for-dollar with increases to domestic spending.
Speaker John A. Boehner left the door open to turning off the sequesters with a bipartisan deal similar to the 2013 agreement by Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, and Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, that averted a government shutdown and gave temporary sequester relief.
The White House also praised that approach.
“It involved Democrats and Republicans in both the House and the Senate trying to find that common ground, and doing so with the full engagement and support of the administration,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday.
The GOP’s budget plan will give Republicans another chance to try to repeal Obamacare through the “reconciliation” process. Under that procedure, committees can write bills that match budget goals, and those bills cannot be filibustered in the Senate.
Democrats used the arcane tool to sew up Obamacare five years ago after losing their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, so Republicans say it makes sense to turn the tables and put a repeal bill on Mr. Obama’s desk.
Still, Mr. Obama will be able to veto whatever the GOP does on Obamacare, and that veto is unlikely to be overridden.
The budget also instructs key committees to try to rewrite the tax code by lowering marginal rates but broadening the base in a way that leaves the government collecting the same amount of money.