Senate Democrats Prevail on Budget
With Vice President Joseph Biden presiding, the Senate passed a $3.5 trillion federal budget resolution late Thursday on a 55-43 vote, hours after the House approved its budget plan. Two Democrats — Sens. Evan Bayh (Ind.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.) — voted against the resolution, along with the entire Republican Conference.The House and Senate versions of the budget blueprint both open the door to sweeping changes to the nation’s health care and energy policies, but lawmakers face extensive negotiations after the spring recess to reconcile the two documents.Senate passage came after scores of amendments were filtered through a daylong “vote-a-rama.— Although Republicans succeeded in making a number of changes to the bill — including modifications to the estate tax — Democrats fended off significant alterations.Democrats easily defeated a GOP substitute budget plan offered by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), as well as an alternative minimum tax amendment proposed by Senate Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).Senators considered amendments throughout the day and night, and cast dozens of votes while negotiating deals and scores of other changes to the massive budget bill that were ultimately cleared by unanimous consent.By early Thursday evening, the legislative marathon was clearly taking a toll.“One of the things I hope we learn from this is to never do this again. That would be my strong recommendation,— Senate Budget Committee Chairman Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) quipped Thursday evening.Later Thursday night, Biden joked he had been away too long after mistakenly referring to Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) as the “Senator from Nebraska.—But as the debate neared conclusion and lawmakers from both parties praised its relatively quick pace, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) broke the collegial tone.“I apologize for throwing cold water on this whole Kumbaya party we’re having,— Ensign said, before entering a parliamentary inquiry with the presiding officer — Biden — on a series of budget points of order offered earlier in the day. Biden, who returned to the Senate to preside over the first budget resolution of the Obama administration, turned aside the GOP procedural move.Republicans roundly criticized the bill on deficit and spending grounds. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) warned the budget resolution “puts the economy on an unsustainable course,— although he did hail a number of amendments Republicans were able to push through, including language tempering the climate change provisions.“Although Democrats rejected several efforts to control spending, create jobs and cut the debt, Senate Republicans were able to slam the door on using the fast-track process to jam through a new national energy tax,— McConnell said.Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) hailed passage of the budget as an important step toward reforming the health care and education systems and reducing the deficit.“This responsible budget will start cleaning up the mistakes of the past and make critical investments in our future,— Reid said. “The Senate’s budget reflects the fundamental priorities proposed by President Obama and recognizes that we cannot recover unless we make health care and education better and more affordable and reduce our reliance on oil.—Pointing a finger at what he called the “Republican Deficit,— Reid sought to cast blame for the country’s current crisis on the GOP — and to temper expectations of a quick fix.“It’s going to take a lot of work to clean up the mess we inherited, and passing this budget is a critical step in the right direction. Staying true to these priorities will help turn around the economy for the many Americans who are underwater right now,— Reid said.Lawmakers now depart for a two-week recess that, for many, will involve lots of discussions with constituents about the budget and the broader economic crisis.House and Senate staff are likely to quickly begin informal discussions on melding the two chambers’ bills.