Republicans are using their new congressional majorities to push strikingly conservative budgets through the House and Senate, aiming to eliminate deficits by overturning President Barack Obama's health care law and slashing safety net programs for the poor.
The House passed its version on a party-line vote of 228-199 on Wednesday, and the Senate was preparing to follow suit late Thursday or early Friday.
As debate began Thursday morning, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell lauded a "balanced budget which focuses on growth, common sense and the middle class."
"It isn't perfect but it does represent honest compromise and the promise of a better tomorrow," McConnell said on the floor.
Democrats were left protesting that the budget used shady accounting to arrive at its savings while cutting deeply into Medicaid, food stamps, welfare, student loans and other programs.
"It really is a budget that is insensitive and unaware of the reality of life for working families, and that is sad," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
Both houses' budgets call for $5 trillion in deficit reduction, increased defense spending and major transformations in both the tax code and Medicare.
Passage in the Senate would follow votes on numerous amendments offered from both sides on topics as disparate as Iran sanctions, water rights, Common Core education standards, paid sick leave, community college and discrimination against pregnant workers. More than 600 amendments had been filed as of Thursday morning, some aimed at creating tough calls for the Republicans eyeing presidential runs or defending their Senate seats in swing states. Only a fraction of those will come to final consideration but the so-called vote-a-rama will last into the night.
- Republican budget advances in the House, but GOP divides remain
- Budget fight: Obama claims upper hand over Congress
"We'll start voting early this afternoon and we'll keep voting until we're exhausted," said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., chairman of the Budget Committee. "That's the way we do it in the Senate."
Senate Republicans anticipated success in getting their budget through, thanks to special rules that require a simple majority vote for the document instead of the 60-vote margin needed to advance most legislation in the 100-seat Senate.
The budgets themselves are nonbinding and do not require a presidential signature. Once each chamber passes its version, the House and Senate will try to agree on a common plan, something that last happened in 2009. Then lawmakers will draft separate legislation to implement the programs.
Even so, Republicans were energized by their progress so far as they sought to make good on promises of responsible governance in the wake of their midterm election victories last fall. Those pledges looked remote at some points in recent months as the GOP veered perilously close to a partial shutdown of the Homeland Security Department and encountered roadblocks on other bills.
In addition to their success with the budget, House Republicans are celebrating expected passage of bipartisan legislation to solve a longtime problem with how Medicare pays doctors, a bill that was also expected to clear the Senate.
Both budget plans would squeeze trillions by undoing so-called Obamacare and cutting Medicaid and other programs, but there are differences. House Republicans would convert Medicare into a voucher-like program, while Senate Republicans, eyeing the 2016 campaign in which they must defend their newly won majority, omitted such an approach.
Both blueprints envisioned an overhaul of the tax code, details to be determined later.
Red ink was projected to give way to a small surplus in 2024 in the House plan, and one year later under the Senate's scenario, though it took tricky accounting to get there, including counting the tax revenue from Obamacare even while eliminating the law.
Both the House and Senate versions matched the defense spending number of $612 billion from Obama's budget, though only after committee-level maneuvering and reliance on overseas operations accounts that don't have to be offset. Still, some defense hawks in the Senate were calling for more.
The prospect of sending Obama legislation to repeal the health care law contributed to the unusual degree of unity among House conservatives. Without a budget in place, they noted, the repeal measure would not have special protection against a Senate filibuster - and would not reach the White House.