Budget Plans Edge Ahead in Senate, House

The Senate and House have passed non-binding resolutions favoring a $3 trillion budget plan put forward by Democrats. But to pay for the plan, Congress would have to make an election-year decision to spike many of President Bush's tax cuts.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now to Washington, where early this morning the Senate approved a $3 trillion budget plan put forward by the Democrats.

Unidentified Man: The ayes are 51; the nays are 44. The concurrent resolution as amended is agreed to.

MONTAGNE: The vote was along party lines, and the plan is non-binding. It's a blueprint for next year, and it lays out tax and spending priorities for the next five years. And it proved to be a powerful magnet for some lawmakers who haven't been seen for a while on the floor of the Senate.

Joining us now is NPR's Brian Naylor, who covers Congress. Good morning.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So this resolution brought a temporary halt to the presidential campaign. Senators Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama returned to Washington to cast their votes. What's so important about the budget resolution?

BRIAN NAYLOR: Well, it's not so much about the budget resolution itself, which is just an outline; it's more advisory in nature than anything else. But what brought the candidates back to Washington was an amendment to bar those special interest programs called earmarks. Let me talk about that in a minute.

I want to talk about the budget resolution first. It says what we're going to do not just in this coming fiscal year but over the next five years, and so what Democrats in both chambers said is that what we are not going to do is extend the Bush tax cuts that affect wealthy Americans such as those on capital gains and dividends - they expire in 2010 - and the Democrats said we will extend the tax cuts that affect lower middle income workers, the - you know, the ones that affect married couples and those with children. And Republicans say, well, Democrats, you just signed onto the largest tax hike in history.

But you know, there's a bit of an air of unreality to all of this, Renee, because like them or not, the tax cuts are not going to be touched by this Congress. It will be up to the next Congress to decide tax policy. So future Congresses aren't bound by these resolutions, so really this was all about putting people on record.

MONTAGNE: And what happens, speaking of putting people on record, to the plan to ban earmarks, those pet projects that members of Congress slip into spending bills that allow them to bring home lots of federal dollars?

NAYLOR: Yeah, well, it was rejected. It wasn't even close. It had the support of the presidential candidates. McCain was a co-sponsor and Senators Clinton and Obama on the Democratic side signed on, but most of the other senators defended the status quo. They argued that, you know, while earmarks soared while Republicans ran Congress, since Democrats have been in they've declined somewhat, and you know, this is an election year and members of Congress kind of like spending money back home, you know, bringing home the bacon; shocker, I know.

MONTAGNE: Right, yeah. I'm sitting here shocked. So - I actually have a couple more questions, Brian. What was the scene like yesterday in the Senate with the three presidential candidates together for the first time in months?

NAYLOR: Well, it was a great day for politics junkies. You know, reporters were spending a lot of time watching the floor, the Senate chamber, and just kind of looking, you know, like the criminologists used to try to figure out what was going on in Moscow. You know, there's Senator Clinton chatting with Senator Levin. They must be talking about how to resolve Michigan's delegates. And now Clinton is talking to McCain. And the most interesting moments were for about three minutes - my colleague David Welna timed them - Clinton and Obama had this very intense discussion as they sat side by side; who knows what they were talking about. Also in the Senate yesterday was Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia. He's been in and out of the hospital since taking a fall, and he was there in a wheelchair, frail but hearty, if that's possible, accepting the handshakes and hugs from his colleagues.

MONTAGNE: And Brian, back to the budget just briefly, now that the House and Senate have passed a budget resolution, what's the next step?

NAYLOR: Well, to try to reconcile the two measures. The biggest difference is the Senate proposes spending about $18 billion more than the President wants this year, the House even more, so they'll try to agree on a number. But in a way it doesn't really matter because the President has threatened to veto any spending bills that surpass what he's said he'll accept, and so what's likely to happen is that all of this will get lumped into one big measure and the Democrats are going to hope that the next president will be a bit easier for them to work with.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much.

NAYLOR: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's congressional correspondent, Brian Naylor

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