House to vote today on budget. Hey – didn't they do that yesterday?

No, the House will not be repeating Thursday's vote on the budget for fiscal year 2011. Nor is it passing a budget for fiscal year 2012. Friday's vote is more – and less – than that.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
House Speaker John Boehner (l.), seen here with President Obama at a bipartisan meeting in the White House on April 13, will call today for a budget vote. Like he did yesterday.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives Friday will hold a big vote on a plan to slash billions of dollars from the federal budget.

Hold it a second – didn’t they do that yesterday? It was all over the news – lawmakers on Thursday had a big vote on a bill that squeezed $38 billion out of Uncle Sam’s spending plans. It passed, by a vote of 260 to 167.

Are they reenacting the movie “Groundhog Day” in Washington, with everybody doing the same thing over and over until Bill Murray wakes up and sees his shadow? Did the danged bill get lost in traffic on its way to the White House, and now they have to pass it again so President Obama has something to sign?

No, and no again. They’re voting on something different today. It’s all part of a US federal budget process that’s as confusing as a teenager’s excuses and more tangled up than the syntax of Charlie Sheen.

We’ll try to explain. On Thursday, the House passed a bill that funds the US government for fiscal year 2011, the one that’s already occurring. That’s right – only in Washington do they keep fighting past fiscal deadlines and then make adjustments to a budget that government managers are already implementing. It’s a little bit like changing the size of the ice rink after the hockey game has started.

The bill that’s already passed is the one that President Obama and Speaker John Boehner have struggled over for so long. If it hadn’t passed, the government would have shut down because all their temporary funds would have expired. In the end, neither side got everything they wanted.

“Welcome to divided government,” said Speaker Boehner, following Thursday’s vote.

On Friday, the House is voting on something different – the budget for the next fiscal year, 2012.

Only they’re not voting on something that will set spending levels in a hard-and-fast manner. That would be too simple. No, under the rules of the budget process, they are voting on a non-binding resolution – a sort of promise about overall goals they will try and follow, both for 2012 and beyond, in that mythical land known to Washington budgeters as “the out years.”

The resolution isn’t law itself. The President doesn’t get to sign it (or veto it). But it sets the stage for lots of things that might happen later in specific pieces of legislation.

Got that?

Specifically, Friday’s vote is on the GOP’s 2012-and-beyond budget outline drawn up by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin. It would cut $6 trillion from federal spending over the next decade, compared to the competing outline submitted to Congress by President Obama in February.

Representative Ryan’s plan is the one that would change Medicare from a government entitlement program to a voucher-like system in which the US would help seniors buy private health insurance. To Republicans, it is something that shows they are serious about putting the nation’s fiscal house back in order.

“The biggest threat to Medicare is the status quo and the people defending it,” said Ryan on Thursday.

To Democrats, it is a drastic program that voters won’t like when they figure out its real effects.

“They force seniors to leave the Medicare program and go into the private insurance market where costs continue to rise day in and day out,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House budget panel.

To a certain extent, their argument here is moot. Ryan's plan is expected to pass the House easily, but run into a wall in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

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