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Senate narrowly approves Democratic budget

March 23, 2013|By Lisa Mascaro
  • An exhausted Senate gave pre-dawn approval to a Democratic budget for next year.
An exhausted Senate gave pre-dawn approval to a Democratic budget for next… (Alex Brandon / AP )

WASHINGTON — After a rare all-night debate, and a frenzy of last-minute amendments that aides dubbed the vote-a-rama, the Democrat-controlled Senate adopted its first budget blueprint in four years by a one-vote margin before dawn Saturday.

The 50-49 final vote came just before 5 a.m., a dramatic legislative lollapalooza in a stately chamber chiefly populated by men and women fast approaching Medicare age. Congress now adjourns for a two-week Easter recess.

Like the far more austere Republican budget approved by the House last week, the Democratic version that passed the Senate is a partisan document that sets out the party’s vision but does not have the force of law.

The $3.7-trillion Democratic blueprint for 2014 would raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy, trim spending modestly, and invest new revenue to build infrastructure and tamp down the federal deficit. Under the plan, the government would still be in the red a decade from now.

Passage of the plan sets the stage for contentious negotiations with the House and the White House next month over how to reconcile the two vastly dissimilar blueprints. The GOP plan is far to the right of President Obama’s views on the federal budget, while the Democratic version falls to his left.

The White House applauded the vote, saying in a statement that the plan "will create jobs and cut the deficit in a balanced way. Like the President's plan, the Senate budget cuts wasteful spending, makes tough choices to strengthen entitlements, and eliminates special tax breaks and loopholes for the wealthiest Americans to reduce the deficit."

The House Republican budget, the statement said, "refuses to ask for a single dime of deficit reduction from closing tax loopholes for the wealthy and the well-connected but instead makes deep cuts to education and manufacturing while asking seniors and the middle class to pay more. That's not an approach we support and it's not an approach the majority of the American people support."

Republicans marked the occasion by hammering Democrats for finally passing a budget after four years.

“It’s about time,” said a one-line news release from the House GOP whip, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield.

No Republicans voted for the plan. Four red state Democrats who face re-election next year opposed it, leading to the squeaker of a final vote. The four Democrats were Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Kay Hagen of North Carolina, Mark Begich of Alaska and Max Baucus of Montana.

“While there are clear areas of disagreement about how to strengthen our economy and restore our nation’s fiscal health,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the chairwoman of the Budget Committee, “this was a productive conversation and one I hope we can build on in the coming weeks.”

Extra supplies were brought into the Capitol late Friday — wood for the fireplaces on a chilly spring night, packaged meals for the take-out shelves — as senators hunkered down for a long night.

Under Senate rules, the budget debate offered senators an unusual opportunity to offer an unlimited number of amendments to debate. And they did.

More than 600 amendments were filed on the bill, from the lofty to the parochial. They included proposals to de-fund new healthcare laws, to restrict potential surveillance by domestic drone aircraft, and to prevent a Western bird called the sage grouse from being listed as an endangered species. Like some members of the Senate, it is known for its strutting displays.

Senators presented their issues in rapid-fire fashion and then called for a vote. The usually lonely Senate floor was filled with senators and aides. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), had suggested 66 amendments by the time the sun set Friday.

The lawmakers began the long night knowing only that the final budget vote would come when they had finished all the others. 

"We are not at carnival stage yet," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said near midnight, as the senators gamely pressed on.

Senators dispatched with several key amendments.

They tossed aside the House GOP budget drafted by Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, which calls for deep cuts to the social safety net, including Medicare, and in an effort to achieve balance in 10 years. Five GOP senators defected on their party’s defining document.

Senators also voted down, largely on party lines, a proposal that would require a balanced budget.

Several GOP ideas to block money for Obama’s signature domestic achievement, the new healthcare law, fell by the wayside on party-line votes. Democrats on Friday celebrated its third anniversary. But an amendment to halt the law’s tax on medical devices won bipartisan approval.

Women benefited from the exercise, as Republicans showed no interest in fighting Democratic proposals to ensure equal pay and reproductive care. Both issues were approved.

And the proposed Keystone oil pipeline, between Canada and the Gulf of Mexico, drew broad bipartisan support.

As the night wore on, senators were essentially trapped on the Senate floor waiting for the final vote. Murray warned her colleagues, many of whom also had an avid interest in the March Madness basketball games, not to stray too far.

“You leave at your own peril,” she said.

In the end, most of the amendments were political messaging to show where senators stand on certain issues — and to provide fodder for campaigns targeting senators up for re-election.

One outcome was guaranteed: paychecks for the senators.

Failure to approve budgets this year would have suspended pay for the lawmakers under a provision slipped into a law earlier this year by House Republicans to goad Democratic senators into presenting their own budget proposal — and saving their $174,000 a year salaries.

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