Moving on two fronts, the Republican-controlled House on Thursday voted to keep the government running for the next six months while pushing through a tea-party flavored budget for next year that would shrink the government by another $4.6 trillion over the next decade.
The spending authorization leaves in place the 'sequestered' $85 billion of spending cuts to the Pentagon and domestic programs. The result will be temporary furloughs for hundreds of thousands of federal workers and contractors over the next six months and interrupted, slower, or halted services and aid for many Americans.
The nonbinding GOP budget plan for 2014 and beyond calls for a balanced budget in 10 years' time and sharp cuts in safety-net programs for the poor and other domestic programs.
Thursday's developments demonstrated the split nature of this year's budget debate. Competing nonbinding budget measures by each party provide platforms for political principles; at the same time Capitol Hill leaders forged a bipartisan deal on carrying out the government's core responsibilities, in this case providing money for agencies to operate and preventing a government shutdown.
The GOP budget proposal, similar to previous plans offered by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, demonstrates that it's possible, at least mathematically, to balance the budget within a decade without raising taxes. But to do so Ryan, his party's vice presidential nominee last year, assumes deep cuts that would force millions from programs for the poor like food stamps and Medicaid and cut almost 20 percent from domestic agency budget levels assumed less than two years ago.
Ryan's plan passed the House on a mostly party-line 221-207 vote, with 10 Republicans joining Democrats against it.
Meanwhile, the Democrat-controlled Senate debated for a second day its first budget since the 2009 plan that helped Obama pass his health care law. A vote on the Senate measure is expected late Friday or early Saturday.
The dueling House and Senate budget plans are anchored on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum in Washington, appealing to core partisans in warring GOP and Democratic tribes long gridlocked over how to attack budget deficits. The GOP plan caters to tea party forces while Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., crafted a measure designed to nail down support from liberal senators like Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who vehemently oppose cuts to safety net programs, like Medicare and Social Security.
What the Ryan and Murray budgets both fail to do is reach out to the political middle, where any possible bargain would have to be forged.
"At least we're moving closer to an opportunity for agreement," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. "I know we're worlds apart when it comes to philosophy and how we go forward."
The sharp contrast over the 2014 budget and beyond came as the House cleared away last year's unfinished fiscal business — a sweeping, government-wide bill to keep Cabinet agencies running through the 2013 budget year, which ends Sept. 30.
The House passed the bipartisan 2013 measure by a sweeping 318-109 vote. The Senate had approved the measure on Wednesday.
The measure would authorize money for the day-to-day operations of every Cabinet agency through Sept. 30, provide another $87 billion to fund overseas military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and maintain a pay freeze for federal workers. Automatic spending cuts of 5 percent to domestic programs and 8 percent to the Pentagon are left in place, leaving hundreds of thousands of federal workers facing job furloughs.
But the bill eases the effect of the trims on food inspections and college assistance for active duty military and relieves the Pentagon from a cash crunch in accounts for training and readiness. Veteran health programs will get their scheduled increases and there are big boosts to modernize the Pentagon's nuclear arsenal. It also ensures full funding for a food program for pregnant women and their babies.
Federal agencies have thus far borne the brunt of the spending cuts hammered out in a hard-fought 2011 budget pact that set spending "caps" and increased the government's borrowing limit. Congress' failure to follow up with another deficit bargain set the automatic spending cuts in motion. They are just beginning to bite, and Republicans insist they remain in place until Democrats agree to cuts to rapidly growing entitlement programs, which are funded automatically as the "mandatory" portion of the budget.
But Democrats were denied additional money to implement Obama's signature first-term accomplishments on overhauling the health care system and tightening regulation of Wall Street.
The long-term, nonbinding GOP budget plan authored by Ryan, the party's failed 2012 vice presidential nominee, makes lots of promises about "reforming" costly benefits programs like food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid, but it's often scant on details about the cuts. And while pledging a tax reform plan that would lower the top income tax bracket from 39.6 percent to 25 percent, it doesn't say which tax breaks, deductions and credits it would eliminate to replace almost $6 trillion in lost revenue over a decade.
The Ryan measure also revives a controversial plan to turn the Medicare programs for the elderly into a voucher-like system for future beneficiaries born in 1959 or later. Critics say the idea would mean ever-spiraling out-of-pocket costs for care, but Ryan insists the plan would inject competition into a broken system.
"This is an uncompromising, ideological approach to our budget issues," said the Budget Committee's top Democrat, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland. "The American people voted, and they resoundingly rejected the approach that is now taken, once again, for the third year in a row, in this Republican budget."
Fresh from passing the 2013 wrap-up measure on Wednesday, the Senate was turning to Murray's plan, which would add nearly $1 trillion in new taxes over the coming decade in an attempt to stabilize the $16 trillion-plus national debt.
It's the first budget debate scheduled by Senate Democrats in four years. Democratic leaders have seemed intent on protecting members from a slew of politically troublesome votes forced by Republicans and don't seem to have suffered from charges that they've been shirking their budget duty.
But Murray's plan would actually increase government spending — measured against a "baseline" that already assumes automatic budget increases — after accounting for the $1.2 trillion cost of repealing the automatic cuts. That means the net cuts to the deficit would amount to just a few hundred billion dollars in a federal budget estimated at $46 trillion or so over the coming decade. Murray's position is that the automatic cuts were designed to prod Washington into action on the debt and were never intended to take effect. By that math her budget promises $1.85 trillion in lower deficits after 10 years.
"We need to tackle our deficit and debt fairly and responsibly," Murray said. "We need to keep the promises we've made as a nation to our seniors, our families and our communities."