By ANDREW TAYLOR, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON — Acting on the Senate's first budget since President Barack Obama took office, a Democratic-led panel is moving toward party-line approval of a fiscal blueprint that would trim the budget deficit while protecting safety net programs from slashing cuts proposed by Republicans.
The expected vote Thursday in the Senate Budget Committee comes as Obama heads to the Capitol for a third consecutive day, carrying his charm offensive with Congress to Senate Republicans and his Democratic allies in the House.
The Senate budget plan, drafted by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., blends about $1 trillion in modest cuts to health care providers, the Pentagon, domestic agencies and interest payments on the debt with an equal amount in new revenue claimed by ending some tax breaks.
But because Democrats want to restore $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts over the same period – cuts imposed by Washington's failure to strike a broader budget pact – Murray's blueprint increases spending slightly when compared with current policies.
In the House, Budget Committee Republicans approved a 2014 budget plan late Wednesday with an entirely opposite approach. It whacks spending by $4.6 trillion over the coming decade and promises sweeping cuts to Medicaid and domestic agencies while setting a path to balancing the government's books within 10 years. The party-line vote sent the measure to the full House for a vote next week.
Separately, debate continues in the Senate on a bipartisan spending measure wrapping up unfinished work on this year's budget – the annual spending bills funding the day-to-day operating budgets of federal agencies. Leaders hope to finish that measure, which is required to prevent a government shutdown at the end of the month, on Thursday.
Senate passage would send the measure, with numerous changes, back to the House, which initially approved the measure last week.
Even as Democrats controlling the Senate and the strongly conservative House moved in different directions, Obama again decided to travel to the Capitol to open a dialogue with lawmakers. On Wednesday, he met behind closed doors with House Republicans, who welcomed the gesture even as they noted that deep divisions remained.
"We've got a big difference between us," Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said. "He supports higher tax revenues."
But Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said Obama told Republicans that he also supports a revised inflation adjustment called "chained CPI" that would curb cost-of-living increases in Social Security benefits and increase tax revenue through slower indexing of income tax brackets. He also supports "means testing" for Medicare benefits that would require higher-income beneficiaries to pay more for their health care.
The debate in the Senate Budget Committee is the first time since 2009 that Democrats in charge of the Senate have advanced a budget blueprint, which opened to predictably poor reviews from the panel's Republicans, who said it was heavy on tax increases and light on cuts to rapidly growing benefit and safety-net programs.
"Is it really possible that after four years, the majority has failed to identify any reforms? That all we have is just a tax-and-spend budget that makes no alteration to our dangerous debt course?" said the top Senate Budget Committee Republican, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama. "Does the majority believe the government is perfect and requires no reform?"
At issue is the arcane and partisan congressional budget process, which calls for a unique, nonbinding measure called a budget resolution. When the process works as designed – which is rarely – budget resolutions have the potential to stake out parameters for follow-up legislation specifying spending and rewriting the complex U.S. tax code.
The House budget plan embraces tough new spending levels required under the unpopular, across-the-board spending cuts that began to take effect this month. But in order to protect the Pentagon, Republicans cut even more deeply into the day-to-day operating budgets of domestic agencies next year, slashing them from the $506 billion projected under the 2011 debt and budget pact to $414 billion – an unprecedented 18 percent cut.
Murray's budget, meanwhile, not only preserves the spending caps set in the hard-fought 2011 deal but proposes $100 billion in stimulus spending for road and bridge construction, school repairs and worker training.
House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has revived his controversial plan that, starting in 2024 for workers born in 1959 or after, would replace traditional Medicare with a voucher-like government subsidy for people to buy health insurance on the open market. Murray proposes modest cuts to Medicare providers.
Ryan proposes slashing the Medicaid health care program for the poor and disabled by more than $700 billion over 10 years, while Murray would trim it by a negligible $10 billion. Ryan promises to eliminate $1.8 trillion in subsidies in the president's health care law; Murray doesn't touch them.