Senate Passes $3.5 Trillion Budget Plan, Advancing Sweeping Safety Net Expansion

Source: By Emily Cochrane, New York Times • Posted: Wednesday, August 11, 2021

The blueprint, which would expand Medicaid, provide free preschool and community college, and fund climate change programs, passed along party lines and faces an arduous path ahead.

Approval of the blueprint followed a marathon session of rapid-fire votes in which Republicans pelted Democrats with politically freighted amendments. 
Tom Brenner for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The Senate took a major step early on Wednesday toward enacting a sweeping expansion of the nation’s social safety net, approving a $3.5 trillion budget blueprint along party lines that would allow Democrats to fund climate change, health care and education measures while increasing taxes on wealthy people and corporations.

After an unusual bipartisan approval of a $1 trillion infrastructure package a day earlier, the vote over unanimous Republican opposition allows Senate Democrats to create an expansive package that will carry the remainder of President Biden’s $4 trillion economic agenda. The Senate adopted the measure 50 to 49, with one lawmaker, Senator Mike Rounds, Republican of South Dakota, absent.

The blueprint, which could set in motion the largest expansion of the federal safety net in nearly six decades, faces a difficult road ahead as Democrats seek to flesh it out and turn it into law, one that will require their progressive and moderate wings to hold together with virtually no votes to spare.

Its passage came after a marathon session of rapid-fire votes in which Republicans, powerless to stop the measure in a Senate that Democrats control by Vice President Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote, instead pelted Democrats with politically freighted amendments. The votes dragged deep into the night for more than 14 hours before Democrats muscled through the measure minutes before 4 a.m. Wednesday, breaking into scattered applause.

“This legislation will not only provide enormous support to the kids of this country, to the parents of this country, to the elderly people of this country,” said Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the independent in charge of the Budget Committee. “But it will also, I hope, restore the belief that in America we can have a government that works for all, not just the few.”

Republicans denounced the measure for launching an unprecedented wave of spending that could ruin the country’s finances and its economy.

“People want to pretend this is just business as usual — just liberals doing liberal things using Senate procedure,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader. “Make no mistake. This reckless taxing and spending spree is like nothing we’ve seen.”

The blueprint now heads to the House, where lawmakers will return early from a scheduled summer recess the week of Aug. 23 to take it up. But moderate Democrats are also agitating for a stand-alone vote on the bipartisan infrastructure package, which could complicate efforts to swiftly pass the measure. Progressives have said they will not vote on the infrastructure bill until the House approves the budget package.

“Democrats have labored for months to reach this point, and there are many labors to come,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader. “But I can say with absolute certainty that it will be worth doing.”

The budget resolution will ultimately allow Democrats to use the fast-track budget reconciliation process to shield the legislation from a Republican filibuster. It will pave the way to expand Medicare to include dental, health and vision benefits; fund a host of climate change programs; provide free prekindergarten and community college; and levy higher taxes on wealthy businesses and corporations.

But months of arduous work remain. That includes not only turning the outline into fleshed-out legislation, but also reconciling the competing demands of liberal and centrist Democrats.

Moderates have begun to express reservations about the size and scope of the legislation. At least one Senate Democrat, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, has said she will not support a final $3.5 trillion price tag, despite voting to advance a budget resolution of that scope, and some House moderates have expressed similar concerns.

But many liberals in both chambers had sought even more spending, and they conditioned their support for the infrastructure deal, which they believe Democrats scaled back too much to secure Republican votes, on passage of the budget blueprint.

Tom Brenner for The New York Times

Senate Republicans sought to exploit some of those divisions through the so-called vote-a-rama, where an unlimited number of amendments could be offered by both parties. This was the third vote-a-rama this year, after Democrats prevailed through two identical exercises to push their $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package through Congress.

The marathon of nearly four dozen votes also gave Republicans a platform to hammer Democrats for trying to advance a package of this magnitude entirely without their input, as well as distinguish the process from the public works plan many of them had supported hours earlier.

“You’re spending money like drunken sailors,” declared Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the top Republican on the Budget Committee. You’re putting in motion, I think, the demise of America as we know it. You’re putting in motion a government that nobody’s grandchild can ever afford to pay.”

The proposed changes, many of which were shot down along party lines, were nonbinding and intended more to burnish a political case against the most vulnerable Democratic senators facing re-election in 2022 than to become law. Some Republicans said the brunt of their proposals would wait until the subsequent legislation was finished, when changes could actually be adopted.

“The next vote-a-rama is the one that really matters, because then you’re firing with live ammo,” said Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania. “So I’m much more interested in that one than this one.”

The hourslong stretch began with a vote that would prohibit funding or regulations to establish the Green New Deal, with Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, declaring that any such provision “will reduce the quality of life for American people — millions and millions of Americans will suffer.”

“I have no problem voting for this amendment, because it has nothing to do with the Green New Deal,” Mr. Sanders shot back. The amendment passed unanimously, with the legislation’s Democratic sponsors dismissing it as “a tired and failed Republican attempt to throw speed bumps on the road to climate action.”

Democrats worked to remain in lock step to ward off many of the Republican proposals, including a provision from Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, that would prevent changes to the cap on how much taxpayers can deduct in state and local taxes. Democrats from high-tax states, particularly New York, New Jersey and California, have made raising or repealing the cap a priority, and a partial repeal is under discussion to be included in the final legislation.

Attempts to limit the blueprint’s expected tax increases, prevent the inclusion of climate provisions or reduce its scope were often denied. Proposals to force the reopening of schools shuttered to stop the spread of the coronavirus and opposing Mr. Biden’s ban on new oil and gas leases on federal land also fell short.

But a few amendments signaled potentially substantive fights to come. For example, three Democrats — Senators Mark Kelly of Arizona, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Ms. Sinema — supported a provision calling for electric vehicle tax credits to be means-tested. And Mr. Manchin joined Republicans in backing the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for abortion and which Democrats are aiming to remove from the spending bills needed to fund the government.

Mr. Manchin also voted with the Republicans to adopt an amendment from Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, to try to block the teaching of so-called critical race theory in public schools.

Around midnight, Democrats voted down, 50 to 49, an amendment from Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, that aimed to block any new tax increases.

Democrats supported some amendments as a way to defang Republican attempts to weaponize the process, as they did with the Green New Deal amendment. Among those was an amendment put forward by Senator Tommy Tuberville, Republican of Alabama, to penalize local governments that reduced funding for the police, reflecting a conservative push to attack Democrats over calls to defund or abolish police departments.

“I am so excited — this is perhaps the highlight of this long and painful and torturous night,” an exuberant Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, proclaimed in response, urging his colleagues to “not walk, but sashay down there” to vote for the amendment. “I’m sure I will see no political ads attacking anybody here over defunding the police.”

A dozen Senate committees will now begin haggling over the details of the final reconciliation package. Mr. Schumer has said he hopes to have the legislation completed by the week of Sept. 15, for the full caucus to review.

Luke Broadwater contributed reporting.