WASHINGTON – Cuts to Medicare and the health care law and almost $40 billion in unrequested money for overseas war-fighting operations top the agenda as congressional negotiators meet to begin ironing out a Republican budget blueprint for next year and beyond.
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Separate House- and Senate-passed budget plans have plenty in common. Both chambers want to use the fast-track budget process to send a measure repealing the health care law to President Barack Obama. And both call for padding war spending — it's exempt from budget limits — on new weapons and training of American forces.
At issue is a nonbinding measure for the 2016 fiscal year starting on Oct. 1. Both House and Senate Republicans have endorsed major cuts to programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, highway projects and domestic agency budgets as a way to bring the federal ledger into balance within a decade — all without raising taxes.
Under Capitol Hill's arcane budget rules, Congress first passes a nonbinding, illustrative document called a budget resolution. Such measures are sweeping in scope, but their practical impact is most directly felt through follow-up legislation funding agency operating budgets, cutting or raising taxes and making changes to benefit programs whose budgets otherwise run as if on autopilot.
Without a willing partner in the Oval Office, Republicans are showing few signs that they want to use their congressional majorities to actually try to implement their most controversial proposed cuts with binding legislation. That's a more cautious approach than Newt Gingrich-led Republicans took 20 years ago when they stormed Washington and delivered a balanced budget to President Bill Clinton, who promptly vetoed it and won a subsequent government shutdown battle.
There is little appetite now for a big budget battle, but House Republicans have opened the door to using a follow-up spending cut bill to do more than simply gash Obama's health care law. Legislation to curb Postal Service costs and end Saturday mail delivery is an option, as are cuts to food stamps, Pell Grants, student loans and subsidies for rural air service, among others.
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Senate Republicans, however, are more cautious and haven't detailed many of their proposed cuts. They have rejected a House GOP plan to turn Medicare into a voucher-like program for future retirees, and they are less aggressive in curbing spending on programs such as Medicaid and food stamps.
Senate Republicans have signaled that they prefer a focused attack on the health care law they call "Obamacare" rather than a broader push to tackle deficits. They anticipate that only two committees, both with jurisdiction over the health care law, will draft a special filibuster-proof budget measure known as a reconciliation bill. House Republicans have told 13 committees to scrub the budget for savings for a potential reconciliation measure.
One difference between the House and Senate is how easy it is to skirt budget rules and permit up to $38 billion in extra war funding to effectively match Obama's proposal to scrap current budget "caps" and eliminate automatic cuts known as sequestration. The House is more generous and would make it easy to deliver the additional money to the Defense Department. But Senate budget hawks such as Pat Toomey, R-Pa., have insisted on a procedural hurdle that would force defense hawks to muster 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to deliver the extra cash to the Pentagon.
The debate over the budget ignores the role Obama will play in ultimately signing the Pentagon budget — and those of domestic agencies — into law. Obama is demanding more money for domestic agencies, and it's commonly assumed that any agreement between him and Republicans controlling Congress is several months away.