Republicans and Democrats are selling their budget plans back home as models for how they would run Washington if they win the November elections.
With the presidency and the majorities of Congress at stake, House Republicans are showing off their $3.5 trillion plan, which passed Thursday on a near-party-line 228-191 vote, to slash the deficit and the size of government by far more than Democrats want. Democrats, meanwhile, insist on imposing higher taxes on the rich and preserving Medicare, transportation, research and other programs they say are jeopardized by the Republicans.
None of the competing plans, including one by President Barack Obama that was rejected unanimously, claim to balance the budget within the next decade.
But for both parties, the mere debate provided a political opportunity to define their priorities and values. Voters, meanwhile, get a more detailed look at how each party would spend their hard-earned tax dollars at a time when jobs and the economy top the list of Americans' concerns in poll after poll.
"That's what elections are for," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters.
Underscoring the point, House Democrats within hours of Thursday's vote blasted out a campaign fundraising letter citing the GOP bill.
"Billionaires and corporations that ship jobs overseas would receive millions while seniors are forced to pay more for their health care," wrote Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., asking for recipients to contribute $3 "right now" to his party's effort to reclaim the House majority.
The Republicans, meanwhile, sent out statements in more than 80 districts titled, "Dems back spending binge & push Medicare closer to bankruptcy."
In this debate, lawmakers again chose division over compromise _ the same dynamic that kept negotiations over the debt limit, unemployment insurance and spending in tortured limbo for months last year and sank Congress' approval ratings to historic lows. Before the House passed the Republican budget Thursday, it swatted away an alternative that would have blended tax increases and spending cuts modeled on recommendations issued by Obama's bipartisan deficit reduction commission that had inspired supportive comments from lawmakers of both parties. In the end, only 38 House members voted for it.
For voters, the budget proposals provide a fairly detailed look at where candidates for president and Congress would take the country.
In the presidential race, Republican front-runner Mitt Romney, as well as hopefuls Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, have said they support the House GOP budget proposal sponsored by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. And for his part, Ryan has tried to tamp down speculation that he could be tapped for the No. 2 spot on the Republican ticket, but he said he'd have to consider it if asked.
Congress' budget is a nonbinding road map that suggests tax and spending changes lawmakers should make in separate, later legislation. A House-Senate stalemate over the fiscal blueprint would have little practical impact as Congress tackles what little budget work it is expected to address before the November elections.
Final House approval of the Ryan budget came after lawmakers rejected a series of alternatives. One proposed by the most conservative Republicans featured even sharper spending cuts and deeper deficit reduction. A clear majority of GOP lawmakers voted for that option, a bow to tea party activists who helped drive Republicans into the House majority in 2010. It was defeated because virtually every Democrat voted against it.
Republicans then forced a vote on Obama's budget, which was rejected 414-0. Democrats worried that a "yes" vote would provide fodder for campaign ads accusing them of backing anything voters might dislike in the president's plan.
Ryan's package would slice everything from food stamps to transportation and cut spending by $5.3 trillion more over the next decade than Obama's would. It envisions collapsing the current six income-tax rates into just two, with a top rate of 25 percent compared with today's 35 percent. It also would eliminate unspecified tax breaks.
Democrats said they, too, were eager to stanch deficits that now exceed $1 trillion annually. But they said it needed to be done in a more balanced way, with rich and poor alike sharing the load.
The GOP plan envisions repeal of the president's health care overhaul and sets a course for deep reductions for highway and rail projects, research and aid to college students and farmers, while easing planned defense cuts.
It also would cut taxes by $2 trillion more than the president's plan over that time, leaving Republicans seeking about $3.3 trillion in deeper deficit reduction than Obama.
Drawing the most political heat was Ryan's plan for Medicare, the $500 billion-a-year health insurance program for older Americans that all sides agree is growing so fast its future financing is shaky. Both parties know that seniors vote in high numbers and care passionately about the program.
Republicans would leave the plan alone for retirees and those near retirement, letting the government continue paying much of their doctors' and hospital bills.
For younger people, Medicare would be reshaped into a voucher-like system in which the government would subsidize people's health care costs. Republicans say that would drive down federal costs by giving seniors a menu of options that compete with each other. Democrats say government payments won't keep up with the rapid inflation of medical costs, leaving many beneficiaries struggling to afford the care they need.