WASHINGTON Both houses of Congress endorsed the idea of tax increases for millions of Americans Thursday as Democrats pressed ahead with budget plans that would allow some or all of President Bush's reductions to die after he leaves office.
All three major presidential candidates interrupted their campaigns to cast votes on the budget planning, which is nonbinding but highlights the difficult choices facing the next president and Congress. Binding votes on the expiring Bush tax cuts will be left to his successor and the Congress that's elected in November.
Senators in both political parties are insisting on their right to send pet projects back to their states, even though presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton joined with GOP nominee-in-waiting John McCain in voting to ban them for one year.
McCain is a longtime opponent of so-called earmarked projects while Obama and Clinton have always asked for their share. Now that critics of Congress' pork barrel ways are intensifying their election-year attacks, Obama and Clinton have jumped on the bandwagon.
Old-timers in both parties led the Senate to beat back the ban. Supporters got only 29 votes for it. They needed 60 votes.
As for the $3 trillion federal budget plans, the House version would provide generous increases to domestic programs but bring the government's ledger back into the black by letting all of Bush's tax cuts expire at the end of 2010 as scheduled. That five-year plan passed the House on a 212-207 vote, with Republicans unanimously opposing it over what they argued was $683 billion in tax increases.
In the Senate, McCain, the Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting, voted to extend the full roster of tax cuts, which he opposed seven years ago as being tilted in favor of the wealthy. Democratic rivals Clinton of New York and Obama of Illinois both voted against them.
Clinton and Obama did vote for $340 billion in tax cuts over five years for middle- and higher-income taxpayers, investors and people inheriting businesses and big estates.
But they joined with Democrats and a couple of maverick Republicans in rejecting, 52-47, an additional $376 billion in extensions of income tax rate cuts, more generous estate tax cuts and relief from the alternative minimum tax.
Republicans hope to use the votes as fodder for the heated presidential campaign and for congressional races. Lawmakers in both parties also were put on record for when the tax cuts actually expire in three years.
Said Republican Rep. Jim McCrery of Louisiana, "Democrats are quietly but very assuredly paving the way for a massive, economy-choking, tax increase," said Republican Rep. Jim McCrery of Louisiana.
Democrats said the plans would reverse years of deficits that have piled up during Bush's tenure. They said he squandered trillions of dollars in projected surpluses that were projected when he took office.
"The Democratic budget continues to move our nation in a new direction and to clean up the fiscal train wreck caused by failed Republican economic policies over the last seven years," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. -->
Separately, the moratorium on pet spending projects seemed headed for defeat despite the backing of all three of Bush's potential successors.
Earmarks have exploded in number and cost in recent years, accompanied by charges of abuse and public outrage over egregious examples like the proposed "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska.
"Too many senators have confused the founding fathers of the earmark favor factory with the Founding Fathers of the United States of America," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
On the subject of tax cuts, Democrats in the House defeated a GOP plan that would have extended Bush's reductions and went further by eliminating the alternative minimum tax, which was originally designed years ago to make sure rich people pay at least some tax but now threatens more than 20 million additional taxpayers with increases averaging $2,000.
Some 38 mostly moderate Republicans voted against their party's plan, which would have made cuts in popular programs like Medicare, housing, community development and the Medicaid health-care program.
Congress' annual budget debate involves a nonbinding resolution that sets the stage for later bills affecting taxes, benefit programs such as Medicare, and the annual appropriations bills. Unless such follow-up legislation is passed, however, the budget debate has little real effect and is mostly about making statements about party priorities.
This is such a year. Congress rarely tackles difficult budget issues as elections loom, and a standoff with Bush means that Democrats may even take a pass on advancing the 12 annual appropriations bills.
The rival budget plans display the difficult trade-offs facing the next president, who must weigh attempting to balance the budget with tax cuts that expire at the end of 2010 and spending programs popular with Democrats and Republicans alike.
The first year of an administration is typically when heavy lifting on the budget is done, but all the candidates' campaign plans seem to promise more than they can deliver. McCain's tax cuts would require applying a meat cleaver to spending, while the Democrats promise spending that would enlarge the deficit or require too-large tax increases.
The White House forecasts the deficit for the current year at $410 billion, a near record.
Democrats trumpeted their plan for putting the budget back in balance while also making investments in infrastructure, education, community development, clean energy and other programs. It also would avoid $196 billion worth of Bush-proposed cuts to Medicare and the Medicaid health care program for the poor and disabled.