WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats embraced President Obama's ambitious and expensive agenda for the nation Thursday night, endorsing a $3.5-trillion spending plan that sets the stage for major legislation later this year on healthcare, energy, the environment and education.
Voting along party lines, the House and Senate approved budget blueprints that would trim Obama's spending proposals for the fiscal year that begins in October and curtail his plans to cut taxes. The blueprints, however, would permit work to begin on the central goals of Obama's presidency: an expansion of healthcare coverage for the uninsured, more money for college loans, and a cap-and-trade system to reduce gases that contribute to global warming.
The measures now move to a conference committee where negotiators must resolve differences between the two chambers, a prelude to the more difficult choices that will be required to implement Obama's initiatives. Although Democrats have sanctioned the president's vision for transforming huge sectors of the economy, they remain fiercely divided over the details.
There is no agreement, for example, on how to pay for an overhaul of the healthcare system expected to add more than $1 trillion to the budget over the next decade, nor is there consensus on how to spend the hundreds of billions of dollars the government stands to collect by setting limits on greenhouse gas emissions and forcing industry to buy permits to pollute.
"Democrats in the House and, I think, the Senate are shoulder to shoulder with the president in trying to make the big decisions we need to make in this country," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). But, he said, "Hammering out the details will require everyone to roll up their sleeves."
Republicans blasted the budget as a reckless manifesto that would expand the government and double the national debt within five years. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he feared the consequences of a budget that "calls for a dramatic and potentially irreversible shift of our nation to the left in the areas of healthcare, education and private enterprise."
Democrats argued that the budget would rebuild an economy ruined by eight years of Republican leadership. In the House, fiscal conservatives generally backed the plan, even though it would generate a deficit of more than $1.2 trillion next year and large annual deficits well into the future.
The House voted 233-196 to support the Democratic budget proposal, with just 20 Democrats voting with Republicans in opposition. The Senate approved its blueprint 55-43, with all but two Democrats voting yes.
Both chambers have adopted Obama's plans to extend tax cuts for the middle class beyond their 2010 expiration date and to allow tax cuts to expire for families making more than $250,000 a year.
But after congressional budget analysts forecast that Obama's request would add $9.3 trillion to the national debt over the next decade, both chambers scaled back Obama's plan to protect millions of families from the alternative minimum tax and dropped his proposal to make permanent his signature $800 tax credit for working families.