Senate committee advances budget reform plan

Senate committee advances budget reform plan
© Greg Nash

The Senate Budget Committee on Wednesday advanced a plan to overhaul a budget and spending process its members characterized as “broken.”

“Something needs to change,” said Chairman Mike EnziMichael (Mike) Bradley EnziThe Hill's Morning Report - Can Sanders be stopped? Lawmakers trade insults over Trump budget cuts Republicans scramble to avoid Medicare land mine MORE (R-Wyo.), who pointed to a deficit nearing $1 trillion and debt that has surpassed $23 trillion. “Both parties contributed to this problem, and both parties will have to be part of the solution.”

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The bipartisan bill approved by the committee, which advanced on 15-6 vote, would lengthen the annual budgeting process to two years and kick off the appropriations process earlier in the fiscal year. Appropriations bills that fund the government would still be considered annually.

The measure would automatically raise the debt limit in accordance with the budget, preventing the periodic fights that have brought the federal government to the brink of default and rattled financial markets.

The legislation advanced despite serious disagreements over a provision that would make changes to what's known as budget reconciliation, a legislative tool that Republicans and Democrats alike have used to pass high-priority, controversial legislation like the 2017 GOP tax law.

The provision would require an automatic process to implement deficit reduction if deficits exceed the amounts planned by the committee, a process Democrats argue could lead to cuts from mandatory programs.

“Why this committee should supercharge that process, I do not know," said Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHillicon Valley: Schiff presses intel chief on staff changes | Warren offers plan to secure elections | Twitter's Jack Dorsey to donate B to coronavirus fight | WhatsApp takes steps to counter virus misinformation Wisconsinites put lives on the line after SCOTUS decision Officials sound alarm over virus relief check scams MORE (D-Ore.), who co-sponsored an amendment to strip out the language. "Under this proposal, reconciliation would no longer be optional. You’d have mandatory budget cuts triggered by a system that a majority party could easily manipulate."

The amendment to remove the provision was rejected, but Democrats like Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseDemocratic senators call on domestic airlines to issue cash refunds for travelers Overnight Energy: Coronavirus package punts on environmental fights | Court sides with tribes in Dakota Access Pipeline case | Trump officials walk away from ethanol court fight Coronavirus package punts on environmental fights MORE (R.I.) said they expected to address the issue further before it advanced to the Senate floor.

“I think what we’ve heard from very respected senior members of this committee on my side of the aisle is concern that this provision lends itself to tricks and gimmicks, and traps and things that can be used to jam the other side and attack basic programs like Medicare that I believe we all support,” Whitehouse said. “I think my colleagues concerns deserve to be worked through."

An analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy priorities called the provision “highly problematic,” arguing that “it could drive deep cuts in mandatory programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, health insurance subsidies, [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program], and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) — and at a time when the economy is weak, thus making the economy still weaker.”

The committee vowed to work with Democratic Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleyOvernight Energy: Oil giants meet with Trump at White House | Interior extends tenure of controversial land management chief | Oil prices tick up on hopes of Russia-Saudi deal Oil giants meet at White House amid talk of buying strategic reserves Democrats ask EPA, Interior to pause rulemaking amid coronavirus MORE (Ore.) on a provision to require the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office to provide more granular data on its budget scores, including distributional effects.

The bill’s prospects, however, are uncertain. A bipartisan, bicameral committee to reform the budget failed to agree last year on a final set of recommendations. That committee considered several provisions similar to those offered in Wednesday’s bill.

This story was updated at 9:52 a.m.