Senate Republicans defend balanced budget; Democrats see fodder

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By Stephen Dinan – 
Republicans defended their balanced budget and Democrats walked away with dozens of votes they think can be used against the GOP in upcoming elections as the Senate passed a blueprint Friday morning to govern spending and provide a path for repealing Obamacare.

Along the way, the Senate voted to rein in the Common Core education standards, to ban the government from assessing a carbon tax and to prepare new sanctions against Iran should that nation violate a future nuclear arms deal, as lawmakers debated into the night.

The balanced-budget plan was approved in a 52-46 vote in the early morning hours.

It’s the first Senate budget since 2013, and just the second passed since 2009, after Democrats regularly avoided the free-wheeling exercise, which results in a nonbinding blueprint.

GOP leaders, however, said this year’s budget includes instructions under a process known as “budget reconciliation” that could pave the way for a major tax overhaul and, most politically charged, for a last major assault on Obamacare.

“It would provide tools to finally repeal and replace Obamacare itself, leaving the law’s higher costs and broken promises where they belong — in the past — in favor of a fresh start, and the opportunity for real health reform,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who said just having the debate was a major change for a Senate that had been calcified in recent years.

The House passed its version of the federal budget Wednesday, and Mr. McConnell vowed that the two chambers will hold a conference committee to hammer out differences. If they are able to reach agreement, it would mark the first unified budget governing federal spending in six years.

Over the past four years, such agreement has been impossible because the House was controlled by Republicans, the Senate by Democrats, and their visions were too different.

But with the GOP taking control of the Senate this year, and expanding its majority in the House, there is a chance for a final agreement if they can overcome disagreements on how far to go in revamping Medicare, and how to boost defense spending without breaking the budget caps agreed to with President Obama several years ago.

Mr. Obama has been roundly critical of the GOP budgets, and in a speech Thursday in Birmingham, Alabama, he renewed his attack, saying Republicans are already moving for deeper tax cuts.

The Senate budget, written by Sen. Mike Enzi, Wyoming Republican, steadily cuts deficits until it shows a small $3 billion surplus in 2025. Mr. Obama’s own blueprint, submitted to Congress in February, never reaches balance and would leave deficits back to about $1 trillion a year within a decade.

To achieve the deficit reduction, Mr. Enzi called for spending limits that will be politically difficult to achieve, and calls for major changes to Medicaid, the federal-state health program for the poor.

One feature of the Senate budget debate is that every senator is free to offer amendments and to demand votes, meaning they are able to put their colleagues on the spot.

Democrats forced votes on raising the minimum wage, imposing new campaign finance restrictions, trying to hike taxes on firms deemed to be offshoring jobs, and boosting college student aid programs. Each of those was defeated in votes that broke almost entirely along party lines.

Amendments that did pass included one ordering the Veterans Affairs Department to fix its rules for how it calculates how far a veteran needs to drive to access a VA facility.

Veterans deemed to live close to a VA clinic are deemed ineligible to seek private care at government expense, but the Senate voted unanimously to tell the department to be more lenient in how it determines the distances.

Senators also passed an amendment by Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, that would prohibit the federal government from tying education money to states’ participation in the Common Core education standards. Those standards have come under fire from conservatives who say it amounts to federal meddling in local school decisions.

“The federal government, through our Department of Education, should not bribe or coerce states in any direction,” Mr. Vitter said.