WASHINGTON — The Democratic-run Senate is poised to vote down a controversial House budget plan that calls for turning Medicare into a voucher-like program for future beneficiaries.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the vote was expected to take place Wednesday afternoon. At the same time, Republicans are forcing a vote to put Democrats on record for or against President Barack Obama's February budget proposal, while conservative Republicans will get votes on even more stringent plans.
Reid is staging the votes to put Republicans on record regarding a plan by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that would transform Medicare into a program in which future beneficiaries — people now 54 years old and younger — would be given a subsidy to purchase health insurance rather than have the government directly pay hospital and doctor bills.
Democrats say the Ryan plan would "end Medicare as we know it," and they made it the central issue in a special election Tuesday in which Democrats seized a longtime GOP district in western New York.
"The voters ... told Republicans in Washington what they think of the Ryan plan," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. "They told them exactly what they think about ending Medicare as we know it. I hope they got the message."
Democrats control the Senate with 53 votes, so Wednesday's vote on the Ryan plan is sure to fail. Several moderate Republicans, including Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and Scott Brown of Massachusetts have said they'll vote against the measure. Tea party favorite Rand Paul, R-Ky., says he'll oppose the Ryan plan from the right since it doesn't actually balance and would add trillions of dollars to the U.S. debt.
The votes won't come on the various budgets themselves but instead on motions to simply begin debate on them.
Republicans offered Obama's budget — which steered clear of major difficult cuts to politically popular programs like Medicare and Social Security and relied on numerous gimmicks to produce savings — in an attempt to turn the tables on Democrats.
Under Congress' arcane budget process, a budget plan is not actual legislation but a nonbinding blueprint that sets a framework for future legislation. While it sets goals for raising or lowering taxes and imposing spending cuts, in most years the vote on a so-called budget resolution is mostly symbolic. In many years, that follow-up legislation is simply a round of appropriations bills.
With the House and Senate controlled by different parties, there's no hope for a final compromise between the two chambers.
In fact, Democrats have pulled the plug on the budget process for now, awaiting the results of negotiations between Vice President Joe Biden and senior lawmakers in both parties that are aimed at producing an agreement on a package of spending cuts exceeding $1 trillion over the coming decade. The cuts would be packaged with must-pass legislation to permit the government to keep issuing bonds to finance its operations and keep its promises to investors in U.S. debt as it faces a deficit of $1.6 trillion this year.
The Biden-led talks are expected to take several weeks or longer as an Aug. 2 deadline for raising the so-called debt limit looms.
The decision by Democrats to not advance a budget spares them from a process that would expose rifts within the party over taxes and how far to cut spending on federal benefit programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad originally drew up a plan heavy on spending cuts — with a 3 to 1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases — but ran into opposition from liberals like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
But Conrad's latest plan relies more on tax increases to meet a goal of cutting projected deficits by $4 trillion over the coming decade. He might be able to get that plan approved by the Budget Committee, which is stocked with party loyalists, but it would likely fail on the floor due to opposition from party moderates.
The Democratic stall on the budget spares Democrats from a full slate of politically difficult votes.
Republicans have been blasting Democrats on a daily basis for their failure to produce a budget, saying they're failing to live up to their responsibility as the Senate's majority party.
"At a moment when our debts and deficits threaten the very future of our nation, Democrats have no excuse for proposing no vision of their own," said Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
The top Republican on the Budget panel Sen. Jeff Session of Alabama hasn't offered an alternative, either, though conservative Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., have offered stringent plans that are expected to be easily rejected.