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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 PaulSaudi mystery drives wedge between Trump, GOP Noisy democracy, or rude people behaving like children? Lawmakers, Wall Street shrug off Trump's escalating Fed attacks 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 EnziOvernight Energy — Presented by Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance — Judge upholds Obama's marine monument | GOP lawmakers worried states using water rule to block fossil fuels | Lawmakers press Trump ahead of ethanol decision GOP senators ask EPA to block states that have 'hijacked' rule to stop fossil fuel production Cruz gets help from Senate GOP in face of serious challenge from O’Rourke 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 McConnellGOP leaders hesitant to challenge Trump on Saudi Arabia Overnight Health Care — Presented by Purdue Pharma — Trump officials ratchet up fight over drug pricing | McConnell says Republicans could try again on ObamaCare repeal | Dems go on offense against GOP lawsuit Republicans should prepare for Nancy Pelosi to wield the gavel 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 McCainMcConnell: GOP could try to repeal ObamaCare again after midterms Comey donates maximum amount to Democratic challenger in Virginia House race Live coverage: McSally clashes with Sinema in Arizona Senate debate MORE (R-Ariz.), a holdout over defense spending, announced he would vote "yes," and Sen. Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranThe Hill's Morning Report — Kavanaugh ordeal thrusts FBI into new political jam GOP Senate candidate to African Americans: Stop begging for 'government scraps' Trump endorses Hyde-Smith in Mississippi Senate race 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 CorkerCorker: Trump administration 'clamped down' on Saudi intel, canceled briefing GOP leaders hesitant to challenge Trump on Saudi Arabia Poll: GOP's Blackburn holds slim lead in Tennessee Senate race 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 CantwellHillicon Valley: Facebook deletes accounts for political 'spam' | Leaked research shows Google's struggles with online free speech | Trump's praise for North Korea complicates cyber deterrence | Senators want Google memo on privacy bug Congress moves to ensure the greater availability of explosives detecting dogs in the US Overnight Energy — Presented by Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance — Trump ends law enforcement program at wildlife refuges | Pruitt canceled trips he already had tickets for | Senate panel approves new parks fund 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 LeeSenators pledge action on Saudi journalist’s disappearance Bernie Sanders: US should pull out of war in Yemen if Saudis killed journalist Senators warn Trump that Saudi relationship is on the line 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 GrahamGOP leaders hesitant to challenge Trump on Saudi Arabia Election Countdown: O'Rourke goes on the attack | Takeaways from fiery second Texas Senate debate | Heitkamp apologizes for ad misidentifying abuse victims | Trump Jr. to rally for Manchin challenger | Rick Scott leaves trail to deal with hurricane damage Five things to know about 'MBS,' Saudi Arabia's crown prince MORE (S.C.) and Bill CassidyWilliam (Bill) Morgan CassidyTrump signs bills banning drug pricing 'gag clauses' Dem ad accuses Heller of 'lying' about record on pre-existing conditions GOP senator suggests criminal referral for third Kavanaugh accuser's 'apparently false affidavit' 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 SchumerMcConnell says deficits 'not a Republican problem' Medicare for All is disastrous for American seniors and taxpayers Senate Dems race to save Menendez in deep-blue New Jersey 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 BlackHow the Trump tax law passed: The final stretch Trump’s endorsements cement power but come with risks The Hill's Morning Report — Trump optimistic about GOP’s midterm prospects as Republicans fret MORE (R-Tenn.) has pushed for $203 billion in deficit reductions from mandatory spending to be included in the final product.