Senate votes down controversial House budget

WASHINGTON (AP) — Joined by several moderate Republicans, Democrats controlling the Senate rejected a controversial House budget plan for turning Medicare into a voucher-like program for future beneficiaries.

Five Republicans joined every Democrat in killing the measure, which calls for transforming 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 said the GOP 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, rattling Republicans.

Among the moderate Republicans that opposed the stringent House plan were Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Tea-party favorite Send. Rand Paul of Kentucky opposed plan from the right since it doesn’t actually balance and would add trillions of dollars to the U.S. debt.

Republicans faulted Democrats, who control the Senate, for failing to offer a plan of their own.

GOP senators immediately forced a vote on President Barack Obama’s February budget proposal, which opened to chilly reviews in February for failing to aggressively tackle issues like the long-term future of benefit programs like Medicare and Social Security. Democrats joined Republicans in opposing the plan, which failed to receive a single vote.

Democrats staged the votes to put Republicans on record regarding the House-passed budget plan, authored by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. In addition to Medicare, the measure would sharply cut the Medicaid health care program for the poor and a host of other domestic programs.

Critics point to a nonpartisan analysis by the Congressional Budget Office predicting the House Medicare plan would pay a shrinking share of seniors’ insurance premiums over time and would lead them to either choose policies that offer less generous coverage or force them to pay thousands of dollars a year in higher premiums to maintain the coverage currently offered by Medicare.

The votes weren’t on the various budgets themselves but instead on motions to simply begin debate on them.

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.

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