With two key votes this week, Congress is on track to pass a 2010 budget plan of stunning size and scope – without a single Republican vote.
The budget resolutions passed by the House and Senate Thursday mark a strong show of support from a diverse Democratic caucus for a popular president at a time of economic distress.
Just three months into a new Congress, President Obama and Democratic leaders are setting a blistering pace.
“Tonight, the Senate has joined the House of Representatives in taking an important step toward rebuilding our struggling economy,” said Mr. Obama in a statement after Thursday votes.
But budget votes also signal how tough it can be to change the culture of a Capitol deeply divided along partisan lines.
The budget resolutions – $3.55 trillion in the House, $3.5 trillion in the Senate – hew close to Obama’s top priorities, including a shift to clean energy, access to healthcare, and a more decisive federal role in education.
Both also project deficits of $1.2 trillion in FY 2010, down from the $1.8 trillion deficit expected this year.
“But again that’s the honesty of this budget. None of the Bush budgets were honest. He’d send them up here without war costs in them ... without estate taxes, without all those things we knew we’d do,” he added.
In exchange for their support, conservative Democrats negotiated a commitment to find offsets to pay for big-ticket items, such as a fix for the Alternative Minimum Tax or restoring cuts in physician fees in Medicare. If these items aren’t fully paid for, Blue Dogs say that they have a commitment from Democratic leadership to make it a legal requirement to find offsets for any new spending or tax cuts.
“It’s a budget of very large scope because a very great deal has to be done to change the disastrous course we’re on,” says Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts, who chairs the House Financial Services Committee.
The policy differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, expected to be negotiated over the next two weeks, are relatively trivial.
But there’s a procedural battle looming that could determine the fate of Obama’s top domestic reform. That’s the question of whether or not to include health, education, and energy reform in a fast-track procedure that blocks Senate filibusters.
That practice, called reconciliation, was first proposed in the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 to help Congress cut deficits. It cuts off debate in the Senate at 20 hours. Since 1980, reconciliation has been used to pass signature Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 and to open the door to exploration and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
With Democrats just short of the 60 votes needed to block a filibuster in the Senate, reconciliation could be decisive in passing closely contested bills.
In a bid to block the use of reconciliation to pass a controversial “cap-and-trade” plan that sets a cost on carbon emissions, the Senate voted 67 to 31 this week to insist on a 60-vote threshold for energy legislation.
But Democratic leaders say they still want to hold reconciliation as an option. "The truth is that both parties have used reconciliation to implement the policies assumed in budget resolutions" in the past, said House majority leader Steny Hoyer on the floor of the House Thursday.
Some Senate Democrats are optimistic that there is an emerging bipartisan consensus on healthcare – and that procedural hardball will not be needed.
“We are much further along to getting a bipartisan bill passed on healthcare than we are on global warming,” says Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon, who is sponsoring bipartisan legislation on the issue. “I’m convinced I can see a path to 68 to 70 votes for healthcare.”
Republicans promise vigorous opposition. “Over bipartisan opposition, Democrats in Congress passed a budget that clears the way for massive amounts of spending, for the biggest tax hike in history and a doubling of our already crippling national debt,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
“It is a budget that puts the economy on an unsustainable course,” he added.
In a sense, the budget vote is the easy part, analysts say. It is nonbinding and merely sets a frame for tax and spending bills to come. As lawmakers come to terms with the details of legislation, opposition will get tougher.
“Right now, members are staggering under the weight of the numbers they have to deal with," says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "But later on, when you’re talking about individual policy proposals and appropriation bills, there you’re talking about issues that are more manageable and members better know better how to deal with them."
He adds: “This budget is like the Grand Canyon: All you can do is look at it in awe.”