By Alexander Bolton - 05/25/11 11:22 PM EDT
The Senate on Wednesday resoundingly rejected a budget sponsored by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) that calls for significant cuts to future Medicare benefits.
The 40-57 vote came one day after Republicans suffered an upset defeat in a special election in upstate New York where Democrats made Medicare cuts the primary issue.
Four centrists voted no: Sens. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who favored larger budget cuts than what was proposed in Ryan’s budget, was the fifth no vote.
Every Democrat voted no except for Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who did not vote.
Shortly after considering Ryan’s plan, the chamber voted unanimously, 97-0, against proceeding to the $3.7 trillion budget President Obama sent to Capitol Hill in February, which Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has called a continuation of the status quo. Democrats voting against the Obama budget argued the president had essentially abandoned it when he presented new proposals for reducing the deficit in March.
The Senate also shot down two other budget proposals.
A plan offered by Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), which would balance the federal budget within 10 years, received 42 votes, the most of any budget proposal considered Wednesday. Toomey, a conservative, broke with Ryan over Medicare by calling for more money to be spent on the program than even Obama recommended in his budget.
The Senate also rejected a proposal by Paul to balance the budget over five years’ time. Paul’s budget received only seven votes, but in a surprise, one yes vote came from McConnell, who joined six of his most conservative colleagues.
In a statement after the vote, Ryan defended his budget and rebuked Senate Democrats for failing to advance a detailed alternative.
“Our plan of action puts the budget on the path to balance and puts the economy on the path to prosperity,” Ryan said. “President Obama’s reckless budget and Senate Democrats’ inaction, on the other hand, commit our nation to a debt-fueled crisis.”
Republican leaders did not pressure colleagues to vote for Ryan’s budget, recognizing it had no chance of passing and that its proposed reforms to Medicare will likely become a political liability on the 2012 campaign trail.
McConnell told his rank-and-file members they were free to vote their conscience, and warned them the vote would have negative political ramifications in some instances, according to GOP sources.
He advised his colleagues to prepare to explain their votes, whether yay or nay, when they return home and meet constituents.
Democrats felt more confident of their political strategy to demonize Ryan’s Medicare reforms after Democrat Kathy Hochul scored an upset victory in the special election in New York’s 26th district, a heavily Republican district. Hochul’s campaign linked her opponent to the Ryan budget.
Some Republican senators said it was a mistake for Ryan to roll controversial Medicare reforms into a broader budget package.
Paul said Medicare should have been handled separately. While he said he likes some of Ryan’s Medicare reforms, the Tea Party favorite noted it would do little to reduce the deficit over the next five years.
Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, acknowledged Ryan’s Medicare reforms might have made a difference in the Hochul race. But, he argued, the bigger reason for the upset was the presence of a Tea Party candidate who siphoned away conservative votes from the Republican nominee.
Cornyn said lawmakers up for reelection next year “need to consult with their constituents and listen to them” when considering how to act on Ryan’s budget.
Senate Democrats say they plan to attack Republican candidates relentlessly next year over Ryan’s Medicare reform plans.
“This issue will have staying power and be a defining issue for 2012,” Schumer, who is in charge of coordinating political and legislative strategy for Senate Democrats, said in a conference call with reporters Monday.
Ryan’s budget would cut spending by $5.8 trillion over the next decade but is not projected to balance the budget within the next 20 years. It would lower the corporate and top individual tax rates from 35 to 25 percent and transform Medicaid into a block-grant program.
Ryan would eliminate Medicare’s fee-for-service payment plan and instead give government subsidies directly to health insurance plans to compete for senior customers through an exchange.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) slammed the House GOP plan for making radical changes to Medicare while still adding to the national debt.
“Anybody that thinks that shredding Medicare and giving these giant tax breaks to the wealthiest among us is going to solve the problem, is going to stop the explosion of debt, is just wrong,” he said before the vote.
He said the Ryan budget would add $8 trillion to the gross debt over the next decade.
Erik Wasson contributed to this report.
This story was updated at 8:47 p.m.