The GOP-led Congress Tuesday passed a full budget for the first time in years, laying out a road map for domestic spending cuts so deep that Democrats dared Republicans to follow through on them, predicting a swift voter backlash.
If enacted, the cuts, combined with an improving economy, could produce a balanced budget within a decade.
The budget cleared the Senate on a 51-48 vote Tuesday afternoon, after passing in the House last week.
No Democrats supported the plan, and Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas were the only Republicans to vote “no.” Both are running for president.
GOP leaders said the plan, which is a non-binding outline that doesn’t require the president’s signature, sets up the rest of the 2016 spending process, and is proof that Republicans can govern now that they control both chambers on Capitol Hill.
“This is something many Americans have been waiting a long time to see,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said. “It’s something they deserve.”
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While non-binding, the budget sets goals for the dozen annual spending bills that keep basic government operations funded, as well as establishing outlines for reforms to the tax code and entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
The White House and congressional Democrats have vowed to fight back as Republicans carry out those goals, objecting in particular to the hike in defense spending, even as domestic programs are still subject to the “sequester” cuts.
Under the GOP-authored plan, spending would be cut by $5 trillion over 10 years, erasing the annual deficit by the end of that period without raising taxes, although it does use some money-shifting tactics that Democrats decried as gimmicks.
The budget also instructs Congress to use a fast-track procedure, known as “reconciliation,” to try to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Using the budget can help Republicans avoid a Senate filibuster — though not a presidential veto.
How the powerful tool is employed could be dictated by whether the Supreme Court this June strikes down Obamacare’s subsidies in dozens of states, a decision that would severely weaken the law and give the GOP leverage.
“It’s not going to be used until after the Supreme Court rules,” Sen. John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican, said.
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Republican leaders missed the April 15 deadline to finish the budget, though Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi said tardiness shouldn’t detract from his party’s accomplishment, saying Democrats who controlled Congress from 2007 to 2011 only managed a budget once.
“We did something in four months that they could only accomplish once in four years,” he said. “That’s produce a budget — let alone a budget that actually balances.”
Democrats, though, said Republicans shouldn’t be proud of the agreement, and predicted that even GOP lawmakers will balk at the low levels of domestic spending called for in the budget once they have to write the specific cuts to education and health care.
“That’s what they want to run on? Be my guest,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said of the GOP’s blueprint.
The final budget deal doesn’t include a contentious House plan that would have turned Medicare into a voucher-like system for seniors who will rely on the government health program down the road.
In order to get around budget caps on defense, the plan shifts $38 billion in new funding to an emergency war account.
Not all Republicans were sold on the move, which has been labeled a gimmick by some budget watchdogs.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona said the move amounted to a “Band-Aid,” and that Congress’s refusal to lift the caps is holding back the U.S. military during dangerous times.
Democrats, meanwhile, have said any increase in defense spending should be coupled dollar-for-dollar with increases to domestic spending.
• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.
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