By Erik Wasson - 03/22/13 10:00 AM EDT
The Democratic-controlled Senate appears set to approve its first budget resolution in four years.
Votes on amendments to the budget began Thursday night, with a final vote set for late Friday or early Saturday.
In a sign of caucus unity, only one Democrat broke ranks to support a key GOP motion on Thursday night. The motion simply called for Democrats to rewrite their budget so that it balanced within 10 years.
The entire Democratic Caucus also rejected a GOP amendment to replace the budget's tax reform instructions, which raises $975 billion in revenue, with instructions to complete revenue-neutral tax reform.
Democrats can only afford to lose only five votes on their budget, which would allow Vice President Biden to cast a tie-breaking ballot. A handful of Democrats from red states, several of whom are facing reelection in 2014, are the key.
Undecided senators include Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.). If they all voted “no,” the budget would fail.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has prevented a budget resolution from being debated since 2009 in part to protect his members from tough votes.
But he has signaled this year will be different.
“We're going to finish the budget before we leave here for the Easter break,” Reid promised this week. “That is for sure. My caucus knows this."
Vulnerable Democratic senators could be seen going in and out of Reid’s office on Thursday as Senate leaders tried to shore up their troops.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) emerged to say he had decided at the last minute to support the plan. “We looked through it. We think attacks the deficit from a reasonable perspective and protects investments to get the economy going,” Tester said.
He said he didn’t know if it would pass, and said if an amendment allowing online purchases to be hit with sales taxes were attached it would be a problem for him.
Other vulnerable Democrats like Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.) and Tim Johnson (S.D.) have joined Tester in supporting the budget.
Reid and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) say their plan would reduce the deficit by $4 trillion.
But it includes nearly $1 trillion in new taxes that could be difficult for some centrist Democrats to support. And because the Democratic budget turns off the sequester's automatic spending cuts, Republicans argue it would increase spending over the next decade.
The Senate budget is unlikely to be reconciled with the House budget to become law, but that won’t stop the GOP from using Democratic votes for the budget in future campaign ads.
Reid and Murray are selling the budget as a “balanced approach” backed by the public in the 2012 elections.
They argue that, counting $1.8 trillion in spending cuts from the last Congress, the plan adds up to more than $4 trillion in deficit reduction — a feat in line with the 2010 recommendations of the Bowles-Simpson Commission.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the Budget panel’s ranking member, argued that the budget uses gimmicks and actually increases spending.
“The budget before us today is a bankrupt vision that will bankrupt the country,” Sessions said. “It’s a jaded tax and spend budget — a budget that never balances, never.”
Democrats’ ability to move their budget will depend in part on whether they can fight off GOP amendments, which only take a majority vote to be added to the bill.
The voting process, which could go well into Saturday morning, could see votes on President Obama’s healthcare reform legislation, gun control, welfare work requirements, automatic congressional pay increases, illegal immigration and whether White House officials should be paid when they have not produced a budget on time, as is the case this year.
Liberal Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) have an amendment that would ban the use of the chained consumer price index to calculate increases in benefits for inflation to Social Security and other programs.
Obama has put the proposal on the table in deficit talks with Republicans, but the Senate budget core text is silent on chained CPI.
Senate Democrats on Thursday forced a vote on the House-passed budget authored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), which balances in 10 years using deep spending cuts. It was voted down 40 to 59, with GOP Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Dean Heller (Nev.), Mike Lee (Utah), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Ted Cruz (Texas) voting with Democrats against Ryan's plan. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a prospective 2016 GOP presidential nominee, voted for Ryan's budget.
GOP rising star Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) will offer his own, more conservative budget blueprint.