Senate Passes Cost-Cutting Budget Plan
By JONATHAN WEISMANMAY 5, 2015
Senator Ted Cruz was one of two Republicans who voted against the budget plan on Tuesday. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times
WASHINGTON — The Senate gave final approval Tuesday to the first joint congressional budget plan in six years, ratifying a 10-year blueprint that would cut spending by $5.3 trillion, overhaul programs for the poor, repeal President Obama’s health care law and ostensibly produce a balanced budget in less than a decade.
Along party lines, the Senate passed the nonbinding blueprint 51 to 48, with only two Republicans voting no, Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas. Both are candidates for the Republican presidential nomination who say the budget plan does not go far enough to shrink the government and cut spending.
Despite the broad aspirations of this budget plan, it appeared moribund even before its final passage. For the plan to take effect, Republican committee chairmen would have to draft legislation that would impose the prescribed cuts. But they have made little effort to do so, and committee leaders in both parties are already calling for new negotiations on a more bipartisan approach.
“It’s going to keep us very busy over the next few weeks,” said Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee and chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “We’ll see what comes of it.” His committee is now supposed to draft legislation to repeal the health care law, turn Medicaid into block grants to the states and begin converting Medicare into a program that offers the elderly assistance to buy private health insurance.
But even some Republicans who voted for the budget are counting on its prescriptions to fade away. Next week, the House Appropriations Committee will draft the annual bill to finance transportation and housing programs, and then will turn in June to the bill to pay for worker training, education and health programs. Lawmakers expect at least one of them to fail on the House floor, forcing budget talks to resume again, this time with Mr. Obama at the table.
“With the numbers we’re having to appropriate to, I’m not sure we can pass these bills,” said Representative Harold Rogers of Kentucky, the House Appropriations Committee chairman. He added, “I think there’s a deal to be had.”
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Senate Republicans made little of the policies prescribed by their new budget and much of the numbers, which they say show a federal deficit finally disappearing for the first time since 2001. To get there, the budget calls for $4.2 trillion in cuts to benefit programs like Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps over 10 years. Domestic programs at Congress’s annual discretion would be cut by $496 billion below the already tight limits imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011.
Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota, characterized Tuesday’s action as a “historic” step toward a balanced budget.
Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, conceded that living within the budget’s strict spending caps would be difficult, but he said, “We’re not going to wave the white flag on the day we passed a budget agreement.”
Even with the plan’s cuts, the deficit disappears only because of faster economic growth that Republicans assume would be produced by the austerity. This theory, known as “dynamic scoring,” would generate $124 billion over 10 years, according to the budget calculus.
“Today, not only will Congress pass a budget for the first time in six years, it will pass a balanced budget for the first time in recent memory,” Senate Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, proclaimed. “This is something many Americans have been waiting a long time to see. It’s something they deserve.”
Democrats called attention to the cost reductions required to get to a balanced budget without raising taxes. They include cutting Pell Grant scholarships, either by capping the number of recipients or the benefit amount for each recipient; cutting off health insurance to as many as 27 million people covered by either the president’s health care law or Medicaid; and slicing $600 billion from “income security” programs like school lunches, food stamps, tax credits for the working poor and nutritional assistance to poor mothers.
Democrats dared the new Republican majority to pass the bills that would put those policies into effect.
“Bring it to the floor, let’s vote on it,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the chamber. “Let’s see if the 23, 24 Republican senators up for re-election this time really want to run on this platform.”
But in truth, few anticipated that Republicans would even try. Senator John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Armed Services Committee and an opponent of military cuts, took to the floor just before the final vote to call for a new budget deal that would lift the spending caps the budget ratified.
“We must work together in bipartisan fashion to fix the damage” caused by previous budget cuts, he said.
Mr. Obama has already promised to veto spending bills that stick to the spending caps in the 2011 budget legislation. And in the coming weeks, leaders of the appropriations committees plan to push spending bills that pay for health care, education, criminal justice and housing programs to show that they cannot muster the votes to even get those bills to the president’s desk.
By forcing a spending stalemate well before the end of the fiscal year in October, appropriators hope to compel Republican leaders and the White House to enter negotiations that could head off another funding crisis at that time, when the government runs out of money and the federal borrowing limit is exhausted.
“I’m always open to bipartisan approaches and fresh ideas, but these ideas are way out of the mainstream,” said Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and a frequent collaborator with Republicans on health care and tax proposals. “I just find it hard to see how you would move forward with them.”