Senate Democrats shoot down GOP's House budget plan. Now what?

Wary of the impact on Medicare, five Republicans joined Senate Democrats in defeating the Republican budget plan written by Rep. Paul Ryan. But the Democrats have no plan of their own, and this could hurt them.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., left, joined by Majority Whip Dick Durbin D-Ill., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., speaks to reporters following a budget vote late Wednesday. The Democratic-run Senate voted down a controversial budget plan from the Republican-majority House that calls for turning Medicare into a voucher-like program for future beneficiaries.

The Senate Wednesday voted to defeat a highly controversial House budget plan for fiscal year 2012 that quickly registered as a liability with voters for lawmakers that supported it. But, in an omission that could also be controversial, Senate Democrats have failed to produce their own plan for getting the nation back on a sustainable fiscal path.

Democrats voted unanimously to defeat the House budget plan, drafted by Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, which would cut $4.4 trillion in spending over 10 years and reduce Medicare to a government subsidy to purchase private insurance.

They were joined by five Republicans, Sens. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, both of Maine. The measure failed 40 to 57.

The president’s budget, deemed a nonstarter because it projects a $1.1 trillion deficit for FY 2012, failed to win a single vote from either party. Proposals by Sens. Pat Toomey (R) of Senate and Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky also failed.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada called the vote a victory for priorities.

“The Ryan plan ends Medicare as we know it and breaks a solemn promise … that if you work hard and contribute, Americans will make sure you are protected in your golden years,” he said on the floor before the vote.

Medicare and New York's special election

The defeat on the Senate floor comes on the heels of an upset win for Democrat Kathy Hochul in a special election Tuesday on traditional GOP turf in New York’s 26th congressional district. Her come-from-behind campaign was waged mainly on the threat to Medicare in the Ryan budget.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York calls defeat of the Ryan budget “the first serious step” toward a bipartisan budget agreement.

“The only way we are going to get a real budget is by Democrats and Republicans sitting down together,” he said in a conference call with reporters on Monday.

“If you may remember, when we had the vote on H.R. 1, and it was defeated roundly, it helped many in the GOP understand that they're going to have to work together on a bipartisan strategy,” he added, invoking the defeat of a House bill to fund the balance of FY 2011, also gridlocked.

But Republicans charge that Democrats are simply avoiding the responsibility of laying out a plan of their own for FY 2012 spending, including specifying how they will rein in deficits.

“It’s a shocking display of irresponsibility,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, after the vote. “They have said: we’re not going to produce anything. We’re just going to attack what you’ve done.”

The Senate Budget Committee has not marked up its own vision for the current fiscal year and beyond, even though the congressional budget process requires the Senate panel to report a budget resolution by April 1 and the Congress to complete action on a budget resolution by April 15.

Waiting for the 'Gang of Five'

Questioned on the absence of a Senate plan after today’s vote, Senator Reid said that Democrats haven’t produced their own budget in deference to ongoing bipartisan talks in the so-called Gang of Five and the leadership group led by Vice President Biden.

“If something happens with the Gang of Five or bipartisan group we have to have an instrument to get to the floor,” he said.

But Republicans and some independent analysts say that it’s a risk for Democrats to try to ride out the FY 2012 budget debate.

“Politically, it’s a problem for Democrats,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey. “There are economic and budget problems that are very real, and the polls show that voters care about this.”

Democrats can try to avoid controversial votes but there’s a cost to that,” he adds. “You can avoid tough votes [on a Democrat budget plan], but it gives Republicans the opportunity to fill in the blanks and say what Democrats are about. It’s an unhappy electorate. Being quiet and just playing defense for the next year won’t necessarily work.”

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