WASHINGTON – Democrats started pushing their expansive $3.5 trillion framework for bolstering family services, health, and environment programs through the Senate on Tuesday, as Republicans responded with an avalanche of amendments aimed at making their rivals pay a price in next year’s elections.
Congressional approval of the budget resolution, which seems assured, would mark a crucial first step by Democrats toward enacting the heart of President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda. It would open the door to a follow-up measure aiming the government’s fiscal might at assisting families, creating jobs and fighting climate change, with higher taxes on the wealthy and big companies footing much of the bill.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., once a progressive voice in Congress’ wilderness and now a national figure with legislative clout, said the measure would help children, families, the elderly and working people — and do even more.
“It will also, I hope, restore the faith of the American people in the belief that we can have a government that works for all of us, and not just the few,” he said.
Republicans argued that Democrats’ proposals would waste money, raise economy-wounding taxes, fuel inflation and codify far-left dictates that would harm Americans. They were happy to use Sanders, a self-avowed democratic socialist, to try tarring all Democrats backing the measure.
If Biden and Senate Democrats want to “outsource domestic policy to Chairman Sanders” and define themselves with a “historically reckless taxing and spending spree,” Republicans lack the votes to stop them, conceded Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “But we will debate. We will vote.”
Budget resolution passage is critical because in the 50-50 Senate, it would let Democrats alone approve a subsequent bill actually enacting their spending and tax policies. Approval of the budget would shield the follow-on legislation from Republican filibusters, procedural delays that kill bills. Approval by the House, where the fiscal plans have won praise from Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is expected in coming weeks.
The Senate began debating the budget minutes after it approved the other big chunk of Biden’s objectives, a compromise $1 trillion bundle of transportation, water, broadband and other infrastructure projects. That measure, passed 69-30 with McConnell among the 19 Republicans backing it, now needs House approval.
In contrast, every Republican present was opposed as the Senate voted 50-49 to begin considering the budget. Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., missed the roll call to be with his ailing wife.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., assured his party’s progressives that their demands will be met for sweeping federal initiatives that go beyond the infrastructure compromise. It was a nod to divisions between the party’s moderates and liberals that he and Pelosi will have to resolve before Congress can approve their fiscal goals. Democrats also control the House but only narrowly.
“To my colleagues who are concerned that this does not do enough on climate, for families, and making corporations and the rich pay their fair share: We are moving on to a second track, which will make a generational transformation in these areas,” Schumer said.
In a budget ritual, senators launched almost immediately into what’s called a “vote-a-rama,” a non-stop parade of messaging amendments that often becomes a painful all-night ordeal. The Senate spent nearly 20 hours taking 41 roll calls on an earlier budget this year and 28 hours on 37 votes as it approved the COVID-19 relief bill in March, according to the Senate Historical Office.
In an initial vote, lawmakers by 99-0 approved an amendment by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., voicing opposition to Green New Deal environmental policies that would boost energy prices and ship American jobs abroad. Democrats backed it, arguing their plan would do neither.
Another by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., voiced opposition to Democrats’ plans to raise some capital gains taxes, arguing they would hurt small businesses and family farms. It also passed 99-0, with Democrats joining and saying those interests would be protected.
Eyeing 2022 elections for control of Congress, Republicans planned to force other votes they hoped would be politically excruciating for Democrats, especially moderates facing tight re-elections.
McConnell said those would include votes to block the release of detained illegal immigrants with COVID-19, prod pandemic-shuttered schools to reopen, bar taxpayer financed abortions and buttress the Pentagon’s budget.
The budget blueprint envisions creating new programs including tuition-free pre-kindergarten and community college, paid family leave and a Civilian Climate Corps whose workers would tackle environmental projects. Millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally would have a new chance for citizenship, and there would be financial incentives for states to adopt more labor-friendly laws.
Medicare would add dental, hearing and vision benefits, there would be tax credits and grants prodding utilities and industries to embrace clean energy. Child tax credits beefed up for the pandemic would be extended, along with federal subsidies for health insurance.
Besides higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations, Democrats also envision savings by letting the government negotiate prices for pharmaceuticals it buys, slapping taxes on imported carbon fuels and strengthening IRS tax collections.
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