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Senate Democrats unveil budget blueprint

President Barack Obama turns to reporters as he leaves Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 13, 2103, after his closed-door meeting with House Speaker John Boehner and Republican lawmakers to discuss the budget.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

President Barack Obama turns to reporters as he leaves Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 13, 2103, after his closed-door meeting with House Speaker John Boehner and Republican lawmakers to discuss the budget. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Senate Democrats unveiled a largely stand-pat budget yesterday that calls for $1 trillion in new tax revenues over the coming decade but actually increases spending, while protecting the party’s domestic policy priorities and adding $4 trillion more to the national debt than a slashing alternative from House Republicans.

The plan by Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, blends about $1 trillion in modest cuts to health care providers, the Pentagon, domestic agencies and interest payments on the debt with an equal amount in new revenue claimed by closing tax breaks.

But because Democrats want to restore $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts over the same period – cuts imposed by Washington’s failure to strike a broader budget pact – Murray’s blueprint increases spending slightly when compared with current policies.

On the other side of Capitol Hill, House Budget Committee Republicans barreled ahead with an entirely opposite approach that whacks spending by $4.6 trillion over the coming decade, promises sweeping cuts to Medicaid and domestic agencies while setting a path to balancing the government’s books within 10 years.

The House panel was expected to approve the plan, by Chairman Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, late yesterday; Murray’s plan was set to be approved by the Democratic-led Senate panel today. Both measures face floor debates next week.

Even as Democrats controlling the Senate and the strongly conservative House moved in divergent directions, President Obama again traveled to the Capitol to open a dialogue with lawmakers. Yesterday’s meeting was with House Republicans, who welcomed the gesture even as they noted that deep divisions remain.

But Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican, said Obama told Republicans that he also supports a revised inflation adjustment called “chained CPI” that would curb cost-of-living increases in Social Security benefits and increase tax revenue through slower indexing of income tax brackets. He also supports “means testing” for Medicare benefits that would require higher-income beneficiaries to pay more for their health care.

Cole said Obama told them everyone needs to honestly confront the political barriers to reining in popular benefit programs like Medicare and Social Security. “He said, ‘Your people don’t want entitlement reform either. Go home and poll them.’ ”

The debate in the Senate Budget Committee was the first time since 2009 that Democrats in charge of the Senate have advanced a budget blueprint, which opened to predictably poor reviews from the panel’s Republicans, who said it’s heavy on tax increases and light on cuts to rapidly growing benefit and safety net programs.

“Is it really possible that after four years, the majority has failed to identify any reforms? That all we have is just a tax-and-spend budget that makes no alteration to our dangerous debt course?” said the top Budget Committee Republican, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama. “Does the majority believe the government is perfect and requires no reform?”

At issue is the arcane and partisan congressional budget process, which involves a unique, nonbinding measure called a budget resolution. When the process works as designed – which is rarely – budget resolutions have the potential to stake out parameters for follow-up legislation specifying spending and rewriting the complex U.S. tax code.

This year, it’s taken as a given that the Tea Party-driven House and Democratic-led Senate won’t be able to resolve their differences absent an agreement driven by the president. Obama has had two failed rounds of talks with House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, and now seems to be looking to the Senate as a potential partner with which to spark a potential breakthrough.

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