WASHINGTON-The House and Senate passed a $3.5 trillion federal budget Wednesday, hailed by Democrats as a step forward for President Obama's agenda and denounced by Republicans as an unprecedented expansion of government spending and the deficit, which will grow by $1.2 trillion this year. In a rare showing of solidarity, no Republicans in either the House or Senate voted for the final budget.
The budget, a blueprint of spending for the upcoming fiscal year, will rely on borrowing for one third of the funds-spending that even Senate Democrat Kent Conrad, the chair of the budget committee, said put the country on a path that is "unsustainable."
"It is absolutely imperative that we do more long-term to get our financial house in order," he said Wednesday.
The ranking Republican on the Senate budget committee, Judd Gregg, pointed out that the level of borrowing is so high that it would preclude the country from joining the European Union. The EU requires that countries joining have less than 3 percent of budget deficit, and the national debt must be below 60 percent of the gross domestic product-the U.S. deficit this year will be around 12 percent, though it will drop next year, and the national debt will jump to 67 percent of GDP in the next five years.
One of the most significant provisions within the budget is a legislative twist that will allow major health care reform to pass in the Senate with a simply majority of 51 yes votes instead of the 60 normally needed to bypass a filibuster. Democrats could ignore all Republican input on health care legislation with a safe padding of votes on their side. With the addition of Sen. Arlen Specter to Democratic ranks, the party now has 59 votes. Still on this vote, Specter voted with Republicans, as did three other Democrats, giving the majority only 53 votes, a slim margin-and the president had originally hoped for bipartisan support.
Both Democratic- and Republican-controlled Congresses have used the obscure tactic, called reconciliation, to pass controversial legislation.
On Wednesday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs called the reconciliation provision an "insurance policy" that the president wanted for passing health care reform.
Conrad has vocally opposed allowing the tactic for health care reform, but he said he could do little to prevent it in the final budget negotiations.
"Although I have some influence, I don't have the ability to overcome the president, the majority leader, and the speaker of the House," he said.
Another senior Democrat, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, has expressed frustration about the reconciliation provision in the current budget, and voted against its final passage Wednesday.
"I was one of the authors of the legislation that created the budget 'reconciliation' process in 1974, and I am certain that putting health care reform and climate change legislation on a freight train through Congress is an outrage that must be resisted," he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in March.
Eight Senate Democrats signed a letter in March opposing the use of the tactic, saying it "would be inconsistent with the administration's stated goals of bipartisanship, cooperation, and openness."
On the House side, the budget passed 233-193-no Republicans supported it, and 17 Democrats defected from their party on the vote.