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Senate's first budget in four years: A chip off partisan gridlock?

Billions in new spending and a $1 trillion tax hike for the wealthy are mainstays of the first Senate budget in four years. It's the polar opposite of the Republican House budget passed this week.

By Staff writer / March 23, 2013

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. rushes with other lawmakers to the Senate floor on Capitol Hill in Washington Friday to vote on amendments to the budget resolution.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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In what Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid called a "Herculean feat," the US Senate passed its first budget in four years (1,448 days) after a 13-hour vote-o-rama early Saturday morning, suggesting a small but significant return to fiscal normalcy for a country struggling to reconcile its debt and spending habits.

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The Senate budget, written by Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington, is more a political document than a fiscal blueprint as it stands in sharp contrast to the House budget passed on Thursday, written by former vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin.

Sen. Murray's budget, passed along partisan lines with a few defecting Democrats, ends $1 trillion worth of tax breaks for the wealthy, curbs but does not end deficit spending, and would spend billions on new infrastructure to help the economy. Rep. Ryan's more austere House budget reforms federal entitlement spending, shrinks the size and scope of many federal agencies, and purports to balance the federal books in 10 years without raising taxes.

Reconciling those two competing visions into one workable budget document by April may seem Sisyphean – and it may yet be, especially given that President Obama, too, is planning to offer his own budget – but the lengthy up and down voting on over 70 amendments into the wee hours also gave Congress a few glimmers of common ground, including support for the Keystone XL pipeline proposal, the repeal of a medical device tax that's become an unpopular aspect of "Obamacare," and stopping the United Nations from infringing on the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

Even though most of those amendments are advisory only, they supported a sense of accomplishment that's been rare in Washington.

"If Washington wasn't so dysfunctional, today would just be another day rather than a historic day," quipped conservative talk show host Sean Hannity.

Most importantly, the lack of a federal budget at a time of rising federal debt and rollercoaster spending has played into a greater sense among many Americans of a Washington unmoored from fiscal responsibility at a time when the average American wallet is thinner than it’s been in decades.

"Passage of the competing plans does advance a more orderly process after nearly three years of crises and brinkmanship,” writes the New York Times' Jonathan Weisman.

To be sure, polarized partisanship in Washington over how to set the course of the country has made it difficult, if not impossible, for the Senate in the last few years to reach the 60 votes needed to actually make a budget actionable (as opposed to the simple 51-senator majority needed to pass a budget). Moreover, the lack of a budget doesn’t technically affect the functioning of government, given various stop-gap and patch-up laws, including the Budget Control Act, passed by Congress in the last few years.

Those measures have allowed the federal government to hobble along without a fundamental budget document in place. "Not having a budget resolution in place is a symptom of the inability to reach agreement – not the cause of Congress not being able to accomplish things," Jim Horney of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities told the Economist last week.

While Republicans and Democrats are still miles apart on how to resolve fundamental debt and spending issues, the depth of the budget debate in the Senate gave some lawmakers hope.

"You may not feel it at the moment, but this is one of the Senate's finest days in recent years," Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, according to Business Insider.

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