Senate Republicans took the first step Thursday evening toward passing a tax plan and fulfilling a long-held campaign pledge.
Senators narrowly voted 51-49 to pass the fiscal 2018 budget after a grueling hours-long marathon on the Senate floor. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) joined with every Democrat and independent to vote against the bill.
The spending blueprint is key to Republicans’ efforts to pass tax reform because it includes instructions that will allow the plan to avoid a Democratic filibuster.
A last-minute amendment by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) adopting technical and procedural language from the House budget may expedite the budget’s final passage.
A House GOP source says the amendment seems sufficient to avoid a conference committee between the two chambers, and allow the House to simply pass the Senate resolution.
“Passing this budget is critical to getting tax reform done, so we can strengthen our economy after years of stagnation under the previous administration,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
With a 52-seat majority, McConnell had a narrow path to getting the votes needed to clear the budget through the upper chamber.
But GOP leadership caught a break this week when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a holdout over defense spending, announced he would vote “yes,” and Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), recovering from health issues, returned early to Washington.
The budget, meant to outline spending for the fiscal year, was widely viewed as a mere vehicle for passing tax reform.
“This is the biggest hoax cast upon the American people ever that this budget process even exists. The only thing about this that matters is in preparation for tax reform,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who voted for the budget.
Corker noted bluntly that he believes the budget doesn’t have a real-world impact and if he was chairman of the Budget Committee he would disband it. When a staffer told him he was about to miss an amendment vote, he shot back: “yeah, on a vote that doesn’t matter.”
McCain, explaining why he would support the budget, added: “At the end of the day, we all know that the Senate budget resolution will not impact final appropriations.”
The budget would allow the Senate GOP’s tax plan to add up to $1.5 trillion to the deficit over a decade, a proposal that has raised concerns with fiscal hawks in the GOP. Its instructions call for the Senate Finance Committee to report a tax bill by Nov. 13.
Still, the document outlines the Senate GOP’s political vision. It maintains spending at 2017 levels for the year, but would then cut nondefense spending in subsequent years, leading to a $106 billion cut in 2027. It would also allow defense levels to continue rising at their current rates, reaching $684 billion at the end of a decade.
The resolution also proposes $473 billion in cuts to Medicare’s baseline spending over a decade and about $1 trillion from Medicaid, though those provisions are not enforceable without additional legislation.
The final discretionary spending levels that will fund the government in 2018 will have to be negotiated between Congressional Republicans, Democrats and the White House ahead of a Dec. 8 deadline. Failure to reach an agreement or pass a stopgap measure by then would lead to a government shutdown.
The Thursday vote comes after the Senate spent days debating the budget, including hours on the Senate floor during a marathon vote session known as vote-a-rama.
Under the freewheeling floor drama, any senator can force a vote on any measure. As of early Thursday afternoon, hundreds of amendments had been filed, most aimed at making the other party squirm by taking politically tough votes.