Senate adopts first budget proposal in four years

March 23, 2013

The Senate adopted on Saturday a proposal that would modestly reduce the U.S. debt through higher taxes for top earners, part of the first budget plan the Democratic-controlled body has passed in four years.

The $3.7 trillion budget proposal highlights differences between Democrats and Republicans over taxes, spending and the size of government. The vote clears the way for the next phase of Washington’s budget battle, which will probably revolve around the need to raise the U.S. debt limit. Federal borrowing authority is scheduled to expire May 19.

“The Senate passed a budget plan that will create jobs and cut the deficit in a balanced way,” the White House said in a statement. “Like the president’s plan, the Senate budget cuts wasteful spending, makes tough choices to strengthen entitlements, and eliminates special tax breaks and loopholes for the wealthiest Americans to reduce the deficit.”

For the most part, the Senate plan would use the savings to finance the repeal of $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts — known as sequestration — over 10 years, leaving little for deficit reduction. It differs markedly from the measure adopted last week by the Republican-controlled House, which proposes to balance the budget within a decade through steep cuts to a number of politically sensitive programs.

The two chambers probably won’t agree on a single plan, and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said he sees little reason to bother with a conference committee, in which lawmakers would meet to work out their differences.

“Budgets are about far more than numbers on a page — they are about the values and priorities of the American people,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat and the plan’s chief sponsor.

Senators voted 50 to 49 for the fiscal 2014 measure, which proposes to raise $1 trillion by clamping down on tax breaks for the wealthy while paring spending on defense, farm subsidies and other programs. The vote capped a session lasting into early morning to consider scores of amendments.

Four Democratic senators voted against the final version: Max Baucus (Mont.), Mark Begich (Alaska), Kay Hagan (N.C.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.). All are up for reelection in 2014.

“Honest people can disagree on policy, but there really cannot be disagreement on the need to change our nation’s budget course,” said Senator Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the top Republican on the chamber’s Budget Committee.

Action was completed at 4:56 a.m. after 13 hours of a “vote-a-rama,” a rapid-fire series of votes in a chamber known for its extensive negotiations. Under special rules, senators were allowed to seek an unlimited number of amendments to the fiscal blueprint.

It became a voting marathon, with lawmakers trying to pin down their colleagues on such issues as a carbon tax, the Keystone XL oil pipeline, genetically modified fish and the estate tax. Many of the votes will probably end up as fodder for campaign commercials next year.

The votes are mostly symbolic because they come in the form of budget amendments that can’t be signed into law. They are part of an internal agreement among lawmakers establishing the boundaries of the tax-and-spending debate for the coming fiscal year. Congress would have to pass separate legislation to make any of the policy changes endorsed in the measure.

— Bloomberg News

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