There was plenty of the usual theatrics and overheated rhetoric on Capitol Hill last week. But when the dust cleared, President Obama came out with almost all of his whopping $3.55 trillion budget intact.
Despite projections that the United States could run a deficit of $1.2 trillion next year under the proposal, the outcome was not much of a surprise. Republicans started the week knowing they would probably be unable to block the budget resolutions in either the House or Senate. Senate Democrats sliced $15 billion from Obama's 2010 budget, and their House counterparts cut out $7 billion.
The predetermined ending didn't stop Republicans from railing against wanton spending and massive deficits. Sen. Judd Gregg, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee who nearly joined Obama's cabinet, led the charge, calling the massive increase in debt needed to fund Obama's budget "a clear and present danger to our people, to our nation, and to our children's future." GOP leaders in the House, ridiculed by Democrats for not offering a substantive alternative, released their own stripped-down budget, which would have frozen most domestic spending and phased out Medicare in favor of private health insurance. Thursday night, not a single Republican voted for the final budget resolutions. And a handful of deficit-leery Democrats also said no.
By the next day, the budget battle was already overshadowed by the latest sign of the nation's economic woes. The most recent jobs report put the unemployment rate at 8.5 percent in March, up from 8.1 percent in February and the highest level since 1983. Employers shed 663,000 jobs last month, slightly more than in February.
On the budget, Republicans and Democrats did both manage to lay down key markers for the major debates ahead. House Democrats pushed through a fast-track procedure that could allow the Senate to move ahead with a yet-to-be-designed overhaul of healthcare without the risk of a GOP filibuster. Senate Republicans, with the help of some worried Democrats, went on record as opposing using the same mechanism to pass a proposal for a cap-and-trade system to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
After the votes, President Obama in a statement applauded Congress for "taking an important step toward rebuilding our struggling economy" and said the budget resolutions embraced fundamental priorities on clean energy, education, and healthcare reform. He added: "With this vote comes an obligation to pursue our effort to go through the budget line by line, searching for additional savings. Like the families we serve, we must cut the things we don't need to invest in those we do."
Lawmakers bolted out of town for a two-week spring recess, leaving congressional staffers to "tee things up" for the next stage of budget battles. In coming weeks, House-Senate negotiators will hammer out final numbers on spending and revenue, and congressional committees that divvy up the money and write tax laws will confront an array of tough choices. Already, the country is fighting two costly wars and facing a potential crisis over funding Medicare and Social Security for a growing wave of retirees.
While lawmakers in both parties know the economy is in the tank, healthcare is broken, and the country is overly reliant on foreign oil, finding consensus on such thorny problems will be infinitely trickier than adding and subtracting billions and trillions of taxpayer bucks.
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