WASHINGTON – The Democratically controlled Congress on Wednesday easily approved a $3.4 trillion spending plan, setting the stage for President Barack Obama to pursue the first major overhaul of the nation’s health care system in a generation along with other far-reaching domestic initiatives.
Despite a persistent recession and soaring budget deficits, Democrats overwhelmingly endorsed the president’s request for hundreds of billions of dollars in new spending over the next decade for college loans, early childhood education programs, veterans’ benefits and investments in renewable energy.
Lawmakers also agreed to use a powerful procedural tool known as reconciliation to advance the president’s proposal to expand health coverage for the uninsured – a move that ensures Republicans would not be able to filibuster the legislation.
The budget resolution didn’t win a single vote from Republican lawmakers, who were enraged that the deficit is projected to exceed $1.2 trillion next year. House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, called it an “audacious move to a big socialist government” that piles “debt on the backs of our kids and our grandkids.”
Still, the measure passed the House by a vote of 233 to 193 and the Senate 53 to 43. Only 17 Democrats in the House and three in the Senate voted against it, as did Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who announced Tuesday that he would leave the Republican Party.
Approval of the budget blueprint marked a huge victory for Obama on his 100th day in office, but it was not a slam-dunk for him. Lawmakers trimmed his tax-cutting plans, refusing to extend his signature tax credit for working families past 2010 unless it is paid for. They sliced $10 billion from his spending request for nondefense programs in the fiscal year that begins in October and jettisoned his suggestion that another $250 billion would be needed to stabilize the banking system.
Meanwhile, huge questions remain on the shape of proposed initiatives, particularly on health care.
“We are clearly as close as we’ve ever been, but it’s still a long journey,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which is taking the lead on health legislation.
The budget resolution is a nonbinding document that does not enact policy but establishes rules for much of the legislation that will be considered in the coming months. It sets limits for spending on most existing government programs and permits lawmakers to pursue certain additional initiatives so long as they do not increase the deficit.