Senate narrowly passes 2018 budget, paving way for tax reform

Senate Republicans took the first step Thursday evening toward passing a tax plan and fulfilling a long-held campaign pledge.

Senators narrowly voted 51-49 to pass the fiscal 2018 budget after a grueling hours-long marathon on the Senate floor. Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulConservatives left frustrated as Congress passes big spending bills Senate approves 4B spending bill Some employees' personal data revealed in State Department email breach: report MORE (R-Ky.) joined with every Democrat and independent to vote against the bill.

The spending blueprint is key to Republicans' efforts to pass tax reform because it includes instructions that will allow the plan to avoid a Democratic filibuster.

A last-minute amendment by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike EnziMichael (Mike) Bradley EnziCruz gets help from Senate GOP in face of serious challenge from O’Rourke Budget chairs press appropriators on veterans spending Forcing faith-based agencies out of the system is a disservice to women MORE (R-Wyo.) adopting technical and procedural language from the House budget may expedite the budget’s final passage.

A House GOP source says the amendment seems sufficient to avoid a conference committee between the two chambers, and allow the House to simply pass the Senate resolution.

“Passing this budget is critical to getting tax reform done, so we can strengthen our economy after years of stagnation under the previous administration,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDoug Jones to McConnell: Don't 'plow right through' with Kavanaugh Kavanaugh accuser agrees to testify next week GOP, Kavanaugh accuser struggle to reach deal MORE (R-Ky.).

With a 52-seat majority, McConnell had a narrow path to getting the votes needed to clear the budget through the upper chamber.

But GOP leadership caught a break this week when Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump hits McCain on ObamaCare vote GOP, White House start playing midterm blame game Arizona race becomes Senate GOP’s ‘firewall’ MORE (R-Ariz.), a holdout over defense spending, announced he would vote "yes," and Sen. Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranGOP Senate candidate to African Americans: Stop begging for 'government scraps' Trump endorses Hyde-Smith in Mississippi Senate race GOP Senate candidate doubles down on Robert E. Lee despite Twitter poll MORE (R-Miss.), recovering from health issues, returned early to Washington.

The budget, meant to outline spending for the fiscal year, was widely viewed as a mere vehicle for passing tax reform.

"This is the biggest hoax cast upon the American people ever that this budget process even exists. The only thing about this that matters is in preparation for tax reform," said Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerPoll: More voters oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination than support it Ford opens door to testifying next week Police arrest nearly two dozen Kavanaugh protesters MORE (R-Tenn.), who voted for the budget.  

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Corker noted bluntly that he believes the budget doesn't have a real-world impact and if he was chairman of the Budget Committee he would disband it. When a staffer told him he was about to miss an amendment vote, he shot back: "yeah, on a vote that doesn't matter."

McCain, explaining why he would support the budget, added: “At the end of the day, we all know that the Senate budget resolution will not impact final appropriations.”

The budget would allow the Senate GOP's tax plan to add up to $1.5 trillion to the deficit over a decade, a proposal that has raised concerns with fiscal hawks in the GOP. Its instructions call for the Senate Finance Committee to report a tax bill by Nov. 13.

Still, the document outlines the Senate GOP’s political vision. It maintains spending at 2017 levels for the year, but would then cut nondefense spending in subsequent years, leading to a $106 billion cut in 2027. It would also allow defense levels to continue rising at their current rates, reaching $684 billion at the end of a decade.

The resolution also proposes $473 billion in cuts to Medicare’s baseline spending over a decade and about $1 trillion from Medicaid, though those provisions are not enforceable without additional legislation.

The final discretionary spending levels that will fund the government in 2018 will have to be negotiated between Congressional Republicans, Democrats and the White House ahead of a Dec. 8 deadline. Failure to reach an agreement or pass a stopgap measure by then would lead to a government shutdown.

The Thursday vote comes after the Senate spent days debating the budget, including hours on the Senate floor during a marathon vote session known as vote-a-rama.

Under the freewheeling floor drama, any senator can force a vote on any measure. As of early Thursday afternoon, hundreds of amendments had been filed, most aimed at making the other party squirm by taking politically tough votes.

Senators narrowly rejected a push by Democrats, led by Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellPartisan politics at independent agency draws bipartisan rebuke Senators share their fascination with sharks at hearing Poll: Majority of Americans support Roe v. Wade MORE (D-Wash.), to block Republicans from using the budget to open up oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The bill doesn’t specifically mention the wildlife refuge, but asks the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to pass legislation to raise $1 billion over the next 10 years and drilling in the Arctic refuge is by far the most likely way to get to the total.

GOP Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeKavanaugh accuser agrees to testify next week Reexamining presidential power over national monuments Utah group complains Mia Love should face criminal penalties for improper fundraising MORE (Utah) both forced their GOP colleagues to vote again on proposals aimed at allowing Republicans to repeal all or parts of ObamaCare with a simple majority.

“Republicans promised to repeal all of Obamacare, root and branch, they promised to repeal not block grant. Tonight I present another chance,” Paul tweeted, urging his caucus to agree to link the health care fight to the budget.

But GOP leadership has been cool to the idea of linking ObamaCare repeal to the fiscal 2018 budget, which is focused on setting up Republicans' ability to pass their tax plan with a simple majority.

Republicans said after the failed vote on a bill by GOP Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Kim, Moon toss ball to Trump in ‘last, best chance’ for Korean peace GOP senator: Kavanaugh accuser 'moving the goalposts' MORE (S.C.) and Bill CassidyWilliam (Bill) Morgan CassidyOvernight Health Care: Opioids package nears finish line | Measure to help drug companies draws ire | Maryland ObamaCare rates to drop Overnight Health Care: HHS diverts funds to pay for detaining migrant children | Health officials defend transfers | Lawmakers consider easing drug company costs in opioids deal Overnight Health Care: Senators target surprise medical bills | Group looks to allow Medicaid funds for substance abuse programs | FDA launches anti-vaping campaign for teens MORE (La.) that health care should be put on the back burner until next year, instead of complicating an already uphill battle on tax reform.

Paul also introduced three additional amendments, each of which garnered more than 90 "no" votes. One would have required $98 billion of mandatory spending cuts in 2018, another would have trimmed $43 billion in discretionary spending, and the third would have expanded the level of tax cuts to $2.5 trillion over a decade from $1.5 trillion.

No Democrats supported the budget, which they argue would pave the way for a tax plan that would cut Medicare and Medicaid and raise taxes on middle-class Americans.

"We're going to make our colleagues say they want to vote to increase the deficit by $1.5 trillion. ...[And] we're going to also make our Republican colleagues vote to whether they want to raise taxes on the middle class," Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTrump, GOP regain edge in Kavanaugh battle READ: President Trump’s exclusive interview with Hill.TV The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump slams Sessions in exclusive Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh accuser wants FBI investigation MORE (D-N.Y.) said earlier Thursday, outlining his caucus's strategy.

If the House chooses not to take up the Senate-passed bill, lawmakers will have to go to conference to work out differences with the House budget resolution, which proposes significantly higher spending for defense and cuts to nondefense discretionary spending.

The conference is expected to lean toward the Senate’s version of the resolution, which provides more leeway for passing tax reform.

House Budget Committee Chairman Diane BlackDiane Lynn BlackTrump’s endorsements cement power but come with risks The Hill's Morning Report — Trump optimistic about GOP’s midterm prospects as Republicans fret Women poised to take charge in Dem majority MORE (R-Tenn.) has pushed for $203 billion in deficit reductions from mandatory spending to be included in the final product.