Senate pushes conservative budget toward approval

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Posted: Mar 27, 2015 12:19 AM
Senate pushes conservative budget toward approval

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans pushed a balanced-budget blueprint toward post-midnight Senate approval early Friday, laying down conservative markers for a likely veto struggle with President Barack Obama over their plans to end deficits, cut trillions in spending and repeal the health care law.

Approval of the non-binding budget was a certainty, not long after a vote in the House on Wednesday that ratified a slightly different version on a party-line vote.

Separately, legislation to stabilize the system for paying physicians who treat Medicare patients cleared the House during the day and was expected to pass the Senate. As a result, the week's events gave credence to Republican claims that their new, two-house majority would be able to govern without the chaos that has often plagued Congress in recent years.

But first, senators plunged into a peculiarly senatorial ritual known inside the Capitol as "vote-a-rama" — bringing up dozens of proposed changes freighted with political implications but little bearing on the budget.

One, advanced by Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, expressed support for assuring same-sex married couples the same access to Social Security and veterans' benefits as husband and wife receive. It passed, 57-43. Republican presidential hopefuls in the Senate opposed it, but several GOP senators facing tough 2016 races in swing states voted in its favor.

With work proceeding at a glacial pace, Sen. Mike Enzi announced at dinnertime that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was hosting dinner for senators, and that Democratic Leader Harry Reid was ready to handle Friday night's meal. "We need a volunteer for breakfast and lunch for tomorrow," the Wyoming Republican said to nervous laughter.

The 10-year budget plan itself was non-binding, although Republicans said it would lead to tangible gains for hard-pressed consumers.

McConnell, R-Ky., said it included ideas "that could boost jobs, raise annual wages by as much as $5,000 per family and drive economic growth for hardworking Americans." He cited an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office for his claim.

Democrats found little to like, and were expected to oppose it unanimously.

The Senate GOP plan envisions more than $5 trillion in deficit reduction over the next decade without higher taxes, resulting in a $3 billion surplus in the 10th year of the coming decade.

By comparison, Obama's budget, presented to Congress over the winter, envisions about $2 trillion in higher taxes on the wealthy, corporations and smokers of all income levels, as well as more spending on domestic programs. It fails to balance at any point in the coming 10 years.

The largest components of deficit reduction in the Senate budget, about $4.3 trillion over the decade, would come from benefit programs. That would include repeal of the health care law — a step Obama has vowed to veto — as well as unspecified reductions from projected growth in Medicaid, food stamps, welfare and other social programs that are also likely to trigger White House opposition.

Democrats took aim at 10-year savings of $435 billion in Medicare contained in the GOP blueprint, but failed on a 54-46 party-line vote to reverse them and push deficits higher by an identical amount. Republicans pointed out that Obama has proposed almost the same level of cuts in the program.

Unlike the House-passed budget, Senate Republicans did not propose converting Medicare into a voucher-like program for new beneficiaries beginning in 2024, a highly controversial step.

Another $236 billion in savings would come from accounts across the face of government, from education to parks to the Commerce Department, all of them already squeezed in recent years by deficit-reduction agreements between Congress and the White House.

The White House withheld immediate comment on the Senate blueprint, pending its approval.

But in a statement released Wednesday night after the similar plan cleared the House, it said Republicans were aiming to lock in "draconian cuts" in some domestic programs while supporting lower taxes for the rich and "failing to responsibly fund our national security."

Defense spending emerged as a struggle between the political parties where appearances meant more than policies.

Obama proposed $612 billion for the Pentagon for next year, including $561 billion for direct funding and another $51 billion from a separate account that supports overseas military and diplomatic activities.

Senate Republicans supported an identical $612 billion, $523 billion of that directly and another $89 billion from the separate account.

The Senate budget, like its counterpart in the House, is vague on specifics, and passage would clear the way for a compromise between the two houses that would be followed by the drafting of highly detailed legislation to actually implement the policies.

Under congressional budget rules for that fight to come, Republicans would be permitted to draft one deficit-cutting bill that Senate Democrats could not filibuster, meaning it could pass on a simple majority vote.

The GOP leadership has been somewhat vague about its likely contents, although several rank-and-file Republicans have said they expect it to include the repeal of the health care law that was enacted on the strength of solely Democratic votes five years ago.

Most of the Senate's day was consumed in seemingly endless votes on proposals whose value lay more in a political campaign than in lawmaking.

One, by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a GOP presidential hopeful, recommended putting another $76 billion into defense spending next year, and cutting from domestic programs to offset the cost. It failed, 96-4.

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Associated Press writer Stephen Ohlemacher contributed to this story.