Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate passed similar versions of a budget resolution that would significantly increase spending over the amount proposed in the president’s budget. The House version would set an overall discretionary spending limit of $1.014 trillion, $25.4 billion more than the president’s $987.6 billion, while the Senate would increase spending by $21.8 billion. These overall discretionary spending totals are the crucial part of the budget resolution, as they are the only numbers that are binding on the appropriations committees.
The House passed its version of the budget resolution on March 13 by a vote of 212-207. No Republicans voted in support of it, but sixteen Democrats, most of them fiscal conservatives, voted against it. The House budget resolution would provide a $7.1 billion increase for education, job training, and other programs. (Exactly how much of an increase the U.S. Department of Education would receive was not specified). Later, in the wee hours of March 14, the Senate passed its budget resolution by a vote of 51-44. Senators Susan Collins (R-ME)and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) were the only Republicans to vote for the resolution while Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN) was the only Democrat to vote against it. Five senators did not vote. As passed by the Senate, the budget resolution would allocate an $8.8 billion increase over the president’s budget for education and job training. The U.S. Department of Education would receive $5.4 billion more than the amount proposed in the president’s budget.
“This budget takes immediate action to strengthen the economy, create jobs, and make America safer,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND). “It responds to the current economic downturn by providing additional stimulus for the economy and tax cuts for middle-class families. And it creates the building blocks for future economic growth by making needed investments in energy, education, infrastructure, and health care.”
Senate debate on the budget resolution lasted fifteen hours and entailed votes on dozens of amendments. One amendment, introduced bySenators Mark Pryor (D-AR) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) and passed by unanimous consent, creates a reserve fund to improve middle and high schools and to help prevent dropouts. The amendment prioritizes surplus dollars to help support strategies for smaller learning communities, early college and dual enrollment, improved transitions from middle school, work-based learning opportunities, and increased rigor at all levels of secondary education for college and the workforce. It also takes into consideration the many reasons why students are likely to drop out of school, including a lack of personal attention, low grades, family responsibilities, and financial issues.
“Today, a high school diploma is a prerequisite for a good job and a decent future,” Pryor said. “My measure offers schools the flexibility, accountability and resources necessary to help students graduate and enter the workforce with the skills they need to succeed.”
Most of the debate on the budget resolution concerned whether to preserve (or extend) President Bush’s signature tax cuts that were enacted in 2001 and 2003. According to CQ Weekly, the Democrats’ budget plans assume that at least some of the tax cuts will expire as scheduled in 2010 but advocate extending those aimed at lower- and middle-income individuals. With the added revenue that will flow to the government when the cuts expire, Democrats say that they can increase spending for areas such as education and infrastructure.
On the other hand, Republicans criticized the plans for being replete with tax increases and wasteful spending. “We need a budget that understands that it is not our money,” said Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH), the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee. “The purpose of the budget should be to structure itself so that we control spending in a manner that allows us to keep taxes under control and doesn’t raise the tax burden on working American families.”
When lawmakers return from a two-week recess on March 31, they will start to work on ironing out their differences on spending and other issues in a House-Senate conference. Even though members of Congress spent a lot of time talking about taxes, the reality is that the major tax changes will probably be left for the next Congress and the next president to determine. Also up in the air is whether Congress will attempt to pass appropriations bills in 2008. Were Congress to agree on a budget resolution that outspends the president’s budget by more than $20 billion, it would likely set up a showdown with President Bush similar to last year’s. If a standoff does materialize, Democrats have said that they would postpone decisions on appropriations bill until 2009 when a new president is in the White House.