WASHINGTON: The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives approved a budget blueprint drawn to President Barack Obama's specifications Thursday, and the Senate was ready to follow suit after administration allies rejected alternatives from liberals and conservatives alike.
The vote in the House was 233-196, largely along party lines, for a $3.6 trillion plan that includes a deficit of $1.2 trillion.
Passage of the underlying Democratic plans will provide the young Obama administration a symbolic boost, even though the budget blueprints provide little guidance on how to create subsequent Obama initiatives to reshape the health care system or combat global warming.
The country wants "real change, and we have come here to make a difference," Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said as both chambers worked on plans to boost spending on domestic programs, raise taxes on the wealthy in two years' time and clear the way for action later in the year on Obama's priority items of health care, energy and education.
Republicans in both chambers of Congress accused Democrats of drafting plans that would hurt the recession-ravaged economy in the long run, rather than help it, and saddle future generations with too much debt.
"The administration's budget simply taxes too much, spends too much and borrows too much at a moment when we can least afford it," said the Senate's Republican leader, Mitch McConnell.
Despite the rhetoric, there was no suspense as lawmakers engaged in an annual budget ritual destined to end in approval of the blueprints drafted by Obama's supporters and backed by the White House.
In the House, that meant voting first on doomed alternatives drafted by more liberal members; the Congressional Black Caucus; Republicans; and a splinter group of conservatives.
In the Senate, it meant a day of sifting through nonbinding proposals often meant to score political points.
The House plan set out spending of $3.6 trillion in the budget year that begins Oct. 1, according to the Congressional Budget Office, compared with $3.5 trillion for the Senate version and $3.6 trillion for Obama's original plan.
The House plan envisioned a deficit of $1.2 trillion for 2010, falling to a projected $598 billion after five years.
The comparable Senate estimates were $1.2 trillion in 2010 and $508 billion in 2014. Obama's budget would have left a deficit of $749 billion in five years' time, according to congressional estimates, too high even for his Democratic allies.
To reduce the red ink, Democrats reduced Obama's proposed spending, ignored his call for another $250 billion in bailout money for the financial industry and assumed that his signature tax cuts of $400 for individuals and $800 for couples would expire in 2011.
The day's events capped a busy three months for the Democratic-controlled Congress that took office in January.
Moving with unusual speed, lawmakers have enacted a $787 billion economic stimulus measure, cleared the way for release of $350 billion in financial industry bailout money, approved an expansion of children's health care and sent the president legislation setting aside more than 2 million acres in nine states as protected wilderness.
While they represented victories for the administration, the budgets merely cleared the way for work later this year on major presidential priorities: expansion and overhaul of the nation's health care system, creation of a new energy policy and sweeping changes in education.
Major battles lie ahead, particularly over health care and energy.
And while Obama made a series of specific proposals to pay for his initiatives, congressional budget-writers avoided taking positions on his recommended curtailing of spending in the government's Medicare health program, for example, or imposing hundreds of billions of dollars in new costs on the nation's polluters.
The budget plans do not require Obama's signature, but the House and Senate will have to reconcile the two versions before they can move onto the next phase of Obama's agenda.
"We are not that far apart," said Democratic Rep. John Spratt, who chairs the House Budget Committee.
One difference, seemingly arcane, involved the ground rules to cover later work on health care.
The House budget provides for a "fast-track" procedure that would bar Senate Republicans from attempting to filibuster the legislation Obama wants to remake the nation's health care system.
Republicans have warned that the prospects for bipartisanship will all but vanish if majority Democrats try to muzzle them.
In a long day of debate in the House, Democratic liberals and Republican conservatives took turns Thursday presenting lost-cause alternatives that reflected varying priorities.
House Republicans presented a comprehensive alternative, which mainly would have made major changes in the Medicare program.
That offered budget was rejected 293-137.
More than three dozen members of the Republican rank and file voted against it, and several officials said the internal opposition stemmed largely from controversy surrounding the Medicare proposal. - AP
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