By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 30, 2009
The Democratically controlled Congress yesterday easily approved a $3.4 trillion spending plan, setting the stage for President Obama to pursue the first major overhaul of the nation's health-care system in a generation along with other far-reaching domestic initiatives.
Despite a persistent recession and soaring budget deficits, Democrats overwhelmingly endorsed the president's request for hundreds of billions of dollars in new spending over the next decade for college loans, early childhood education programs, veterans' benefits and investments in renewable energy aimed at reducing the nation's dependence on foreign oil.
Lawmakers also agreed to use a powerful procedural tool known as reconciliation to advance the president's proposal to expand health coverage for the uninsured -- a move that ensures Republicans would not be able to filibuster the legislation. Unlike in 1993, when then-President Bill Clinton unveiled a universal coverage plan that went nowhere on Capitol Hill, Obama has a strong mandate for change from both chambers of Congress and a mid-October deadline for key congressional committees to send legislation to the full House and Senate.
"This is very exciting," said DeAnn Friedholm, health reform director for Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports. "Some of us have spent our entire careers trying to make sure we have a decent health-care system, and I think we're on the precipice of being able to get that this time."
The budget resolution didn't win a single vote from Republican lawmakers, who were enraged that the deficit is projected to exceed $1.2 trillion next year. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) called it an "audacious move to a big socialist government" that piles "debt on the backs of our kids and our grandkids."
Still, the measure passed the House by a vote of 233 to 193 and the Senate 53 to 43. Only 17 Democrats in the House and three in the Senate voted against it, as did Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who announced Tuesday that he would leave the Republican Party.
Approval of the budget blueprint marked a huge victory for Obama on his 100th day in office, but it was not a slam-dunk for him. Lawmakers trimmed his tax-cutting plans, refusing to extend his signature tax credit for working families past 2010 unless it is paid for. They sliced $10 billion from his spending request for non-defense programs in the fiscal year that begins in October and jettisoned his suggestion that another $250 billion would be needed to stabilize the banking system. They also refused to authorize the use of reconciliation for his plan to cap greenhouse gas emissions.
Meanwhile, huge questions remain on the shape of proposed initiatives, particularly on health care.
"We are clearly as close as we've ever been, but it's still a long journey," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which is taking the lead on health legislation. "This is one of the steepest ascents in politics. We have momentum. We have the right gear, shall we say. But reaching the peak is a hard thing."
The budget resolution is a nonbinding document that does not enact policy, but establishes rules for much of the legislation that will be considered in the coming months. It sets limits for spending on most existing government programs and permits lawmakers to pursue certain additional initiatives so long as they do not increase the deficit.
The resolution also creates a reconciliation process for health care and Obama's plan to dramatically expand the federal college loan program. Under the resolution, if key committees produce health and education legislation by Oct. 15, those measures could pass the Senate with only 51 votes instead of the usual 60.
Republicans and some key Democrats have complained bitterly about using reconciliation for health care, arguing that it robs the minority of influence on major legislation related to one of the biggest sectors of the U.S. economy. Specter and Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) both cited reconciliation as the reason they opposed the budget resolution, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has vowed to produce a bipartisan bill well before the October deadline.
Even with the advantages of reconciliation, Baucus faces a host of competing demands. Many Senate Republicans have vowed to oppose any measure that creates a government-run health program for the uninsured; many liberal Democrats have vowed to oppose any measure without one. Conservative Democrats, meanwhile, say they want the administration to deliver on its assurances that changing the health-care system will rein in rising costs for federal health programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, not simply expand coverage.
The administration's challenge is "to convince enough of us that their proposal will actually contain costs over the long term," said Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.), a leader of the Blue Dog Democrats, who temporarily blocked progress on the budget resolution earlier this week amid concern about deficits.
Then there's the matter of paying for expanded coverage, which is expected to cost more than $1 trillion over the next decade. Asked yesterday how Congress might find the money, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, laughed. "With great difficulty," he said.