About to leave town on a two-week break, Congress spent the last several days in a flurry of activity culminating in a Senate “vote-a-rama” session on the budget that lasted until 4:30 Friday morning. So, what all happened in this final rush of legislative work?
In practical terms, not a whole lot. For all the votes cast and floor speeches made, there is no major legislation on its way to President Obama’s desk. Seemingly the only thing that didn’t get voted on was a hugely popular fix to Medicare’s compensation system, which passed the House with majorities of both parties on Thursday and which the president has indicated he is willing to sign.
Here’s what you need to know about what Congress did and didn’t accomplish over the last few days.
- The Federal Budget: Both houses passed plans that they claim will balance the government’s books within 10 years. However, because the House and Senate passed different bills, lawmakers leave town with the job half-done. Budget legislation does not require a presidential signature, because all it does is place constraints on the Congressional Appropriations Committees, but it is a necessary precursor to completing spending bills under regular order.
- The House Budget passed on a party line vote with only Republicans in support and claims to cut $5.3 trillion in government spending over a decade while increasing spending on the military. The cuts, not specified in detail, would largely come from health care entitlement programs that largely serve the poor. It uses a gimmick – funding normal Defense Department operations through the Overseas Contingency Operations fund – to fund part of the $96 billion increase in defense without adding to official deficit calculations or violating spending caps put in place by the Budget Control Act.
- The Senate had even more drama. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) threw open the floor to amendments, and senators voted on dozens. Many were purely political in nature, offered by one party to require members of the other party to take a stand on controversial issues.
Likely presidential candidates, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) offered amendments to boost defense spending. Democrats forced Republicans to vote on proposals to ensure the rights of same-sex couples. There was unanimous support for a measure that would help put additional sanctions in place against Iran if the government of the Islamic Republic fails to abide by its agreements on the development of nuclear arms.
In the end, the budget passed 52-46, with all the Democrats voting against it, and all Republicans except Sen. Paul and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) – who announced his presidential bid earlier this week – in favor.
- Reconciliation: The budgets aren’t the same but the two Houses of Congress have to go a conference committee, which is expected to report a bill back to each house with “reconciliation” instructions to various committees.
The reconciliation process is messy and complex; essentially it involves changing existing law to bring spending and revenues in line with the new budget. The House and Senate Budget Committees are responsible for creating a final version of the budget plus the package of changes from the reconciliation process, which can then be brought up for a vote. Reconciliation bills have special status in the Senate that prevents them from being filibustered, meaning they can be passed with 51 votes.
When Congress returns from its current recess, that’s the process awaiting lawmakers before they can send appropriators their instructions.
- The “Doc Fix.” As mentioned above, the biggest piece of legislation that might have made it to the president’s desk never got a vote in the Senate on Thursday. The House on Thursday morning passed a measure to permanently do away with the annual stress over how to comply with legislation requiring Medicare payments to stay in line with a “sustainable growth rate” formula. The SGR would cause large cuts in reimbursements to care providers, so Congress has waived it annually for more than a decade in measures known as the “Doc Fix.”
The House bill does away with the fix, funding it in part by requiring elderly Medicare patients with annual income of $133,000 or more to shoulder a higher percentage of their premium payments and by eliminating MediGap coverage of deductibles under Medicare Part B, which covers hospitalization. The cuts, however, do not offset the entire cost and the package would still add an estimate $500 billion to the federal debt over 10 years – and much more in the future.
The House passed the bill 392-37, with overwhelming majorities from both parties voting in favor. Though the Senate did not vote on the measure, McConnell insisted early Friday the measure has substantial support in his chamber and would pass when Congress returns next month.
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