Updated 7:05 p.m.
One day after Republicans lost a special election that was dominated by debate over their 2012 budget proposal, the Senate on Wednesday rejected the House Republican budget blueprint, a mostly symbolic vote that nonetheless underscores the political peril entailed in the GOP proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher program.
The budget plan, which was drafted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and which passed the House in April with the support of all but four Republicans, was rejected by the Senate Wednesday on a 40-to-57 vote.
As was the case in the House vote, all Democrats present in the Senate voted against the measure; they were joined by five Republicans, a sign of the wariness with which some Republicans have come to view the budget plan, particularly members who may face tough reelection bids in 2012.
The Republicans voting against the plan Wednesday were moderate Sens. Scott Brown (Mass.), Susan Collins (Maine), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), as well as conservative freshman Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), who argued that the plan did not go far enough in cutting spending.
Immediately after the vote on the Ryan budget, the Senate unanimously rejected President Obama’s 2012 budget proposal. The Obama budget did not secure the support of a single lawmaker, with all 97 senators present voting “no.”
The Senate also rejected two other conservative Republican budget plans Wednesday evening. A budget proposed by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) that would have balanced the budget within nine years failed on a 42-to-55 vote. All Democrats present and three Republicans voted “no.” Another, even more aggressive plan put forth by Paul was overwhelmingly rejected, with only seven Republicans (including Paul) voting “yes.”
The votes come as lawmakers and the Obama administration are sparring over how to address the country’s record $14.3 trillion debt. The Treasury Department has set a deadline of Aug. 2 for Congress to vote to raise the debt limit or else put the country at risk of default. The debate on Capitol Hill has been dominated in recent weeks by the issue.
The House-passed Republican budget plan would address the debt problem by making sweeping cuts to the federal budget, but it is a provision that would overhaul Medicare and other federal entitlement programs for future seniors that has drawn the greatest political controversy — a point underscored by the fact that Wednesday’s vote was called not by Senate Republicans, but by Democratic leaders.
Public polling shows that while voters are deeply concerned about the debt, they strongly oppose cuts to Medicare and other federal entitlement programs, even as they favor the broader notion of federal budget cuts.
That opposition to Medicare changes was on display in Tuesday’s special election in a conservative House district in upstate New York, which Democrats had sought to turn into a referendum on the House Republican budget plan. Senate Democrats on Wednesday argued that the vote demonstrated that voters across the country were turning against the plan.
“I mention New York not because this was a win for Democrats or a loss for Republicans, but because this was a win for our seniors and because the stakes are too high,” Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said on the Senate floor ahead of Wednesday’s vote. “Americans all across the country are saying ‘no’ to the current Republican plan that could fail to automatically enroll our seniors in Medicare and instead force them to buy health care from a private insurance company.”
Republicans have countered that Democrats are resorting to “scare tactics” and that their proposed budget would not affect current seniors, a point that Democrats have disputed.
In a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday, Toomey, who voted for the House Republican budget, argued that Senate Democrats have not only failed to produce a budget of their own but have also offered no ideas on how to save Medicare.
“This is an extraordinary abandonment of a very fundamental responsibility,” Toomey said. “And I have to say, I have a hard time listening to the criticism of the House budget by people who have offered no budget as an alternative.”
“Is it the perfect plan? Is it the only plan?” he continued. “I’m sure it’s not, but it would work.”
While Wednesday’s vote has clear political implications — it gives Democrats on the campaign trail the opportunity to hammer the 40 Republicans who voted for the plan — it’s unclear whether the plan will have any further policy implications, particularly in the ongoing deficit-reduction talks between congressional leaders and Vice President Biden.
Republicans have thus far called for Medicare and other entitlement programs to be on the table in those talks, an idea to which Democrats have objected.