Senate passes budget plan. So what?

The Senate passed a budget road map Tuesday, but it's partisan and there's much work still to be done. Some lawmakers are pointing to a bipartisan budget deal hammered out in 2013 as a model for going forward.

Evan Vucci/AP
Sen. Mitch McConnell helped the Senate adopt a GOP budget on Tuesday that paves the way for a partisan showdown over spending bills this fall.

The Senate passed a budget plan on Tuesday, making this the first time Congress has approved a budget outline in six years. The House passed the plan last week.

So Congress is doing its job, right?

Not exactly. What Congress produced was a GOP budget road map, passed by Republicans – a statement of GOP values. Once it hits the legislative road as spending bills, Senate Democrats will probably throw up barricades (and conservatives in both chambers might, too). Another budget crisis could ensue, even a government shutdown.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, say members of both parties. They point to a two-year bipartisan budget deal hammered out in 2013 by Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin and Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington, chairs at the time of their respective budget committees. It passed both chambers and restored relative budget calm.

The Murray-Ryan deal found a way past automatic, across-the-board spending cuts, known as sequestration, which was agreed to in 2011 to solve the debt-ceiling crisis. The deal identified about $85 billion in other mandatory spending cuts and used that to raise defense and military spending affected by sequestration – and to reduce the deficit.

“There’s absolutely a way to replicate it,” said Representative Ryan at a Monitor breakfast last week. He has since moved on to chair the House Ways and Means Committee, and in the GOP-controlled Senate, Sen. Michael Enzi (R) of Wyoming now holds the budget gavel.

But Ryan’s not the only one looking to the past. Some Democrats, including White House budget director Shaun Donovan, are also invoking the deal. They are calling for a budget summit that would replace sequestration with other long-term cuts as well as generate revenue from closing tax loopholes, according to the Associated Press.

On the Senate floor Tuesday, Senator Murray urged Republicans to come to the table to work out a deal similar to the 2013 agreement.

“That deal wasn’t the budget I would have written on my own, and it wasn’t the one Republicans would have written on their own, but it ended the lurching from crisis to crisis, helped workers and the economy, and made it clear that there is bipartisan support for rolling back sequestration,” she said in prepared remarks.

She’s right that it’s up to Republicans to make a move. But they are unlikely to do so now. Senior Republicans say it’s too early, according to CQ Roll Call. They’re divided in their own ranks over spending details, with defense hawks wanting more defense spending and fiscal hawks wanting to keep the sequestration caps. The budget process probably needs to play out more to see where deals can be done.

But even the plan Republicans passed – which balances the budget in 10 years, doesn’t raise taxes, drastically cuts domestic spending, and repeals the Affordable Care Act – holds a hint at a compromise that could come. It contains reserve funds that could serve as the basis for a deal à la Murray and Ryan. And it increases defense spending, which the White House also supports.

“Would it be plagiarism if I [agreed with Ryan] and said ‘absolutely’ ” it’s possible to repeat a deal like 2013?, said Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio, a member of the Senate Budget Committee.

“Our options are limited. We all want to do more in terms of ensuring our national defense is adequate to the challenges we face. And under sequester, it’s a deep concern, not just on our side of the aisle,” he said.

Still, it’s likely to be a rocky ride up to Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, after which a new budget would kick in.

“We applaud the fact that Congress has done a budget,” says William Hoagland, senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center. However, “we’re realistic that this is not a budget that can be implemented. And therefore, this is just the beginning of the kabuki dance.”

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