Talks begin on Capitol Hill budget measure

Author: Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) – Lawmakers quarreled Monday over Medicare, taxes and almost $40 billion in unrequested money for overseas war-fighting as House and Senate negotiators kicked off work on a Republican budget blueprint for next year and beyond.

“A budget is more than just a set of numbers. It is a reflection of our priorities, of our vision for the future,” said Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, top negotiator for House Republicans, as he touted the version he largely drafted.

It would cut more than $5 trillion from spending projected to otherwise total almost $50 trillion, his path toward a balanced budget by 2024.

Separate House- and Senate-passed budget plans have plenty in common. Both chambers want to use the fast-track budget process to send a measure repealing the health care law to President Barack Obama. And both call for padding war spending – it’s exempt from budget limits – on new weapons and training of American forces.

At issue is a nonbinding measure for the 2016 fiscal year starting Oct. 1. Both House and Senate Republicans have endorsed major cuts to programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, highway projects and domestic agency budgets as a way to bring the federal ledger into balance within a decade – all without raising taxes.

“Passing a balanced budget is about restoring the trust of the American people, because the federal government’s chronic overspending and exploding debt threatens each and every American,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.

Liberal Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders agreed that the companion Republican plans are the GOP’s vision for the future – though he views it as an assault on the poor and working class because of cuts to student loans, Medicaid and food stamps, as well as a repeal of the Affordable Care Act that would take medical care away from about 15 million people.

“The rich get much richer, and the Republicans think they need more help,” Sanders said.

Republicans will now iron out their differences behind closed doors in hopes of passing a joint House-Senate budget plan by the end of the month.

“If Republicans did actually apply this budget, once the American people got a good look at its extremism and its favoritism, it would put a quick end to the Republican majorities,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

There is little appetite now for a big budget battle, but House Republicans have opened the door to using a follow-up spending cut bill to do more than simply gash Obama’s health care law. Legislation to curb Postal Service costs and end Saturday mail delivery is an option, as are cuts to food stamps, Pell Grants and subsidies for rural air service, among others.

Senate Republicans, however, are more cautious and haven’t detailed many of their proposed cuts. They have rejected a House GOP plan to turn Medicare into a voucher-like program for future retirees, and they are less aggressive in curbing spending on programs such as Medicaid and food stamps.

Senate Republicans have signaled that they prefer a focused attack on the health care law they call “Obamacare” rather than a broader push to tackle deficits. They anticipate that only two committees, both with jurisdiction over the health care law, will draft a special filibuster-proof budget measure known as a reconciliation bill. House Republicans have told 13 committees to examine the budget for savings for a potential reconciliation measure.

It’s unclear just how Republicans will use fast-track budget rules to send legislation to Obama without threat of a filibuster in the Senate.

“Being real honest with you, I really have no idea what is going to happen from this point forward,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. “The budget is interesting; it’s really kind of the first step.”

One difference between the House and Senate is how easy it is to skirt budget rules and permit up to $38 billion in extra war funding to effectively match Obama’s proposal to scrap current budget “caps” and eliminate automatic cuts known as sequestration. The House is more generous and would make it easy to deliver the additional money to the Defense Department.

But Senate budget hawks such as Pat Toomey, R-Pa., have insisted on a procedural hurdle that would force defense hawks to muster 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to deliver the extra cash to the Pentagon.

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