Washington – After a grueling, all-night debate that ended close to 5 a.m., the Senate on Saturday adopted its first budget in four years, a $3.7 trillion blueprint for 2014 that would fast-track passage of tax increases, trim spending gingerly and leave the government still deeply in the debt a decade from now.
The 50-to-49 vote sets up contentious — and potentially fruitless — negotiations with the Republican-dominated House in April to reconcile two vastly different plans for dealing with the nation’s economic and budgetary problems. No Republicans voted for the Senate plan on Saturday, and four Democrats — Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Begich of Alaska and Max Baucus of Montana — also opposed it. All four are red-state Democrats up for re-election in 2014.
“The Senate has passed a budget,” Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the Senate Budget Committee chairwoman, declared at 4:56 a.m.
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The House plan ostensibly brings the government’s taxes and spending into balance by 2023 with cuts to domestic spending even below the automatic “sequestration” levels now roiling federal programs and it orders significant changes to Medicare and the tax code.
The Senate plan, in contrast, includes $100 billion in upfront infrastructure spending to stimulate the economy and calls for special fast-track rules to overhaul the tax code and raise $975 billion over 10 years through legislation that could not be filibustered. Even with that tax increase and prescribed spending cuts, the Senate plan would leave the government with a $566 billion deficit in 10 years, and $5.2 trillion in additional debt over that time.
“The first priority of the Senate budget is creating jobs and economic growth from the middle out, not the top down,” Ms. Murray, the chairwoman of the Budget Committee, said. “With an unemployment rate than remains stubbornly high, and a middle class that has seen their wages stagnate for far too long, we simply cannot afford any threats to our fragile recovery.”
Republicans were dismissive of the Democrats’ priorities.
“Honest people can disagree on policy, but where there can be no honest disagreement is the need to change our nation’s debt course,” said Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the Budget Committee’s ranking Republican. “The singular truth that no one can escape is that the House budget changes our debt course while the Senate budget does not.”
Passage of the competing plans does advance a more orderly process after nearly three years of crises and brinkmanship. If House and Senate negotiators can agree on a framework for overhauling the tax code and entitlement programs like Medicare, their committees could go to work on detailed legislation, possibly under special rules that protect the bills from a Senate filibuster.
If the negotiations prove fruitless, the next budget crisis looms this summer when Congress must again raise the government’s statutory borrowing limit or risk defaulting on the federal debt. House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio on Thursday revived a rule — breached in January — that any increase in the debt ceiling must be accompanied by equivalent spending cuts.
Final passage of the Senate budget was upstaged by the process that got the senators to it, a record-breaking marathon known since 1977 as the budget “vote-a-rama.” More than 500 amendments were filed, and 70 were voted on. They were advisory only, but they put the Senate on record backing a dizzying variety of subjects, from limiting the regulation of sage grouse and preventing the United Nations from infringing on Americans’ right to bear arms, to repealing a tax on medical devices that helps finance the president’s health care law and building the Keystone XL pipeline through the Midwest.
By 4 a.m., the senators were sitting quietly in their seats, plowing through amendments like sleepy schoolchildren, breaking only to give the Senate pages a standing ovation and to grumble when a senator demanded a roll-call vote if a voice vote would suffice. As the senators recorded their final votes, they hastily headed out of the Capitol for a two-week spring recess.
It was the 32nd all-night Senate session since 1915, and the first since an Iraq War debate in 2007 stretched from 10 a.m. to 5:09 the following morning, according to the Senate Historical Office.
But the sleepy bonhomie did not bridge the budgetary divide between the parties. Senate Republicans and Democrats could not even agree on what was in the Senate budget. Ms. Murray said the plan matched its $975 billion in revenue increases with equivalent cuts and interest savings. But Republicans said it did not, since the proposal reversed $1 trillion in automatic, across-the-board spending cuts, known as sequestration, but did not count that against the spending cuts.
Those differences did not lend themselves to much optimism going forward.
“The only good news is that the fiscal path the Democrats laid out in their budget resolution won’t become law,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader.