Congress OKs budget in win for Bush; tax bill next
WASHINGTON (AP) – A fractured Congress approved a final budget for next year that promises deep tax cuts and bridled spending, awarding a victory to President Bush though there were signs the road to achieving those goals may be bumpy.
With centrist Democrats providing pivotal support, the evenly divided Senate cleared the $1.95 trillion budget on Thursday by a near party-line 53-47 vote. Defections by Republican Sens. James Jeffords of Vermont and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island were outweighed by five Democrats who backed the GOP-written plan.
”Now is not the time, with these circumstances, to figure out how we disagree,” said Sen. John Breaux, D-La., who supported the budget after leading a bloc of 14 moderate Democrats whom the White House romanced with only partial success. ”Now is the time to figure out how we can reach an agreement for the good of all the people we represent.”
”The president views this as a very important day in his new presidency and he is very pleased to thank the Democrats that helped make this possible,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
Underlining the partisan tensions that the budget fight exacerbated, Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles, R-Okla., expressed unhappiness with 10 moderate Democrats who had supported an earlier version of the budget but voted no on Thursday.
”It told me they don’t want to participate in writing the tax bill,” he said. Lawmakers who supported the budget ”have a greater likelihood of being given some attention” as the Senate composes its tax bill in coming days, he said.
The budget would permit a tax cut of $1.35 trillion over 11 years, $100 billion of which may come this year and next in an attempt to boost the economy. Bush wanted a $1.6 trillion reduction over 10 years, but was forced to settle for less by the Senate’s narrow political balance.
”You didn’t get everything you want, Mr. President,” said the Budget Committee chairman, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. ”You have made us change direction. You have moved us in the direction of giving back taxes to the American people, rather than giving them the last cut of the deck.”
Importantly for Bush and his GOP allies, budget passage means the $1.35 trillion tax bill cannot be filibustered, a procedural delay that take 60 votes to halt. Republicans say they will pursue even deeper tax cuts, but those won’t have the budget’s protection.
The budget would hold spending for most federal programs – other than automatic benefit programs like Social Security – to $661 billion next year, a 4 percent increase. That is what Bush had proposed. But it is half the size of this year’s growth in spending, and even some Republicans concede privately that it is unrealistically low.
The measure calls for increases for education, defense, biomedical research and other programs, and leaves the door open for further military spending the Pentagon is expected to request soon. But most moderates of both parties who opposed the budget said it set too little aside for schools, casting further doubt on efforts to restrain spending.
”I cannot support a budget that puts large tax cuts and unlimited defense spending ahead of educating our nation’s children,” Jeffords said.
The House approved the budget on Wednesday by 221-207, also along party lines. The blueprint, which sets non-binding targets for future bills that will cut taxes and finance agencies, does not need Bush’s signature.
The bulk of Democrats opposed the budget as clearing the way for an excessive tax cut that would siphon money needed to bolster Social Security, Medicare, schools, debt reduction and other priorities. They said GOP claims of forging good working relationships with Democrats were bogus.
”We have all heard the mantra that the tone of Washington is being changed,” mocked Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. ”When it was time for the rubber to hit the road, bipartisanship had a flat tire.”
Further problems cropped up shortly after the budget vote. Senate Democrats meeting privately to discuss the tax bill raised questions about its contents and urged their chief negotiator, Sen. Max Baucus of Montana the top Democrat on the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, to slow down the GOP’s rapid-fire schedule.
”We’ve got some time here,” said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a member of the Finance Committee. ”There are still some issues we haven’t been able to vet yet.”
The House has already approved most of its tax-cutting bills. Senate GOP leaders say they want to have a compromise tax package with Democrats by Friday, and have Congress ship a final bill to Bush by Memorial Day.
Democrats joining Breaux in backing the budget were Baucus, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Max Cleland and Zell Miller of Georgia.
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