After an all-night debate, the Senate on Saturday adopted its first budget in four years, a $3.7 trillion blueprint for 2014 that would provide a fast track for passage of tax increases and modest spending cuts. Approval came after an extraordinary 20 hours of voting and debate. As the night wore on, virtually all senators remained in the chamber, a rarity during a normal business day. Here’s a look what’s next.
The 50-49 vote in the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, sets up contentious negotiations with the Republican-controlled House in April to reconcile two vastly different plans for dealing with the nation’s economic and budgetary problems. The Senate plan embraces nearly $1 trillion in tax increases over the coming decade. It includes $100 billion in upfront infrastructure spending to goose the economy and calls for special fast-track rules to overhaul the tax code and raise $975 billion over 10 years in legislation that could not be filibustered. Even with that tax increase and prescribed spending cuts, the Senate plan would leave the government with a $566 billion annual deficit in 10 years, and $5.2 trillion in additional debt over that window.
Final passage of the budget was upstaged by the process that got the senators to it, a marathon session known since 1977 as the budget “vote-a-rama.” More than 500 amendments were filed, and 70 were voted on. The amendments were advisory only, but they put the Senate on record backing a dizzying variety of subjects, including limiting the regulation of sage grouse, preventing the United Nations from infringing on Americans’ right to bear arms, repealing a tax on medical devices that helps finance the president’s health care law and building the Keystone XL pipeline.
The rival House plan — by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, his party’s vice presidential candidate last year — ostensibly brings the government’s taxes and spending into balance by 2023 with cuts to domestic spending even below the levels of automatic across-the-board cuts roiling federal programs now, and it orders up dramatic and controversial changes to Medicare and the tax code. That blueprint, approved last week, claims $4 trillion more in savings over the period than Senate Democrats by digging deeply into Medicaid, food stamps and other safety-net programs for the needy. It also would transform the Medicare health care program for seniors into a voucherlike system for future recipients.
If negotiators can agree on a framework for overhauling the tax code and entitlement programs such as Medicare, Congress’ committees could go to work on detailed legislation, possibly under special rules that protect the bills from filibuster.
If the negotiations prove fruitless, the next budget crisis looms this summer when Congress must again raise the government’s statutory borrowing limit or risk defaulting on the federal debt. Federal borrowing authority is scheduled to expire May 19. House Speaker John Boehner, R- Ohio, last week revived a rule — breached in January — that any increase in the debt ceiling must be accompanied by equivalent spending cuts.
President Obama is demanding a combination of tax increases and spending cuts, while GOP leaders say they won’t consider higher revenues but want serious reductions in Medicare and other benefit programs that have rocketed deficits skyward. The president plans to release his own 2014 budget on April 8, an unveiling that will be studied for whether it signals a willingness to engage Republicans in negotiations or play political hardball. Republicans will watch to see what steps, if any, the White House is willing to recommend to slow the growth of Medicare or perhaps Social Security. Given Obama’s recent series of meetings with Republicans, some GOP lawmakers say privately it would be a positive sign for him to include a proposal curtailing the rise in cost-of-living increases in benefit programs. But many Democrats in Congress oppose it, and the administration has never included it in its budget.