WASHINGTON – Democrats controlling the Senate rejected for the second year in a row Wednesday a budget plan passed by House Republicans.
The 58-41 vote against the GOP budget came after a daylong debate in which Democrats blasted Republicans for refusing to consider tax increases as part of a solution to trillion-dollar deficits, and Republicans in turn attacked Democrats for not offering a budget at all.
Republicans launched the debate, which was aimed less at successfully passing a bill than highlighting the failure of Senate Democrats to deal with a budget deficit expected to top $1 trillion for the fourth consecutive year.
The Senate rejected five separate budget plans, including one based on President Barack Obama's February budget and offered by Republicans to embarrass Democrats and the White House. It failed on a 99-0 vote. Three GOP senators elected in 2010 with tea party support also offered plans in a competition to see whose budget could cut government the most.
The end results were preordained: sweeping rejection of Obama's budget and a near party-line vote to block the main alternative, the blueprint of Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that passed the House in March. The tallies on the Ryan budget and a tougher version offered by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., defeated on a 57-42 vote, were probably inflated since the votes weren't on the actual budgets themselves but rather on a motion to simply take them up for debate.
Five Republicans voted against the Ryan plan: Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Dean Heller of Nevada and Rand Paul of Kentucky. Heller voted for the measure last year but, in the midst of a competitive race to retain his seat, switched his vote on Wednesday.
Toomey's plan received 42 "aye" votes, one more than the Ryan plan.
At issue is the arcane budget process on Capitol Hill, which involves a nonbinding measure called a budget resolution. Actual changes to the budget are made in follow-up legislation.
Democrats haven't passed a budget since 2009, opting against weeklong floor debates that would have exposed party members to dozens of politically difficult votes or put themselves on record in favor of tax hikes or huge deficits.
In most years, all a congressional budget really does is assign an overall "cap" on the annual appropriations bills that set agency operating budgets. Democrats note that last summer's budget pact already set such a cap for the ongoing round of spending bills, so Wednesday's debate wasn't really necessary.
But Republicans said Democrats were abdicating their responsibility to tell voters their solution to the government's daunting budget problems, which economists of all stripes warn will swamp the economy and spook the markets unless they're dealt with before long.
"It is very hard to overstate how urgent the fiscal crisis that we face really is when you are going the fourth consecutive year with a budget deficit of over $1 trillion," Toomey said. "There is one party that is seriously addressing these problems."
The GOP plans varied in their toughness, with the House-passed measure — which fails to produce balance in the 10-year budget window — actually being the least stringent. Sen. Rand Paul's measure was the toughest, calling for the elimination of four Cabinet departments: Commerce, Education, Housing and Urban Development, and Energy while calling for a 17 percent flat tax on both individuals and corporations.
Paul's budget won 16 votes; a measure by Mike Lee, R-Utah, received 17 votes.
Each GOP measure, though, would sharply cut domestic programs and called for a dramatic transformation of Medicare that would turn it into a voucher-like program in which future beneficiaries, those presently under the age of 55, would have to buy health insurance on the open market rather than have the government pay hospital and doctor bills.
Democrats called for a "balanced" solution blending tax increases on wealthier people with less severe spending cuts.
"We will not allow the debt and deficit to be reduced on the backs of the middle class and most vulnerable Americans without calling on the wealthiest to contribute," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said. "That is not fair, it's not what the American people want, and it's simply not going to happen."