WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Joined by several moderate Republicans, Democrats controlling the Senate rejected a controversial House budget plan for turning Medicare into a voucher-like program for future beneficiaries.
Five Republicans joined every Democrat in the 57-40 vote killing the measure, which calls for transforming Medicare into a program in which future beneficiaries -- people now 54 years old and younger -- would be given a subsidy to purchase health insurance rather than have the government directly pay hospital and doctor bills.
Democrats said the GOP plan would "end Medicare as we know it," and they made it the central issue in a special election Tuesday in which Democrats seized a longtime GOP district in western New York, rattling Republicans.
Among the moderate Republicans that opposed the stringent House plan were Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Tea-party favorite Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky opposed plan from the right since it doesn't actually balance and would add trillions of dollars to the U.S. debt.
Republicans faulted Democrats, who control the Senate, for failing to offer a plan of their own.
GOP senators immediately forced a vote on President Barack Obama's February budget proposal, which opened to chilly reviews in February for failing to aggressively tackle issues like the long-term future of benefit programs like Medicare and Social Security. Democrats joined Republicans in opposing the plan, which failed to receive a single vote.
Democrats staged the votes to put Republicans on record regarding the House-passed budget plan, authored by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. In addition to Medicare, the measure would sharply cut the Medicaid health care program for the poor and a host of other domestic programs.
Critics point to a nonpartisan analysis by the Congressional Budget Office predicting the House Medicare plan would pay a shrinking share of seniors' insurance premiums over time and would lead them to either choose policies that offer less generous coverage or force them to pay thousands of dollars a year in higher premiums to maintain the coverage currently offered by Medicare.
The votes weren't on the various budgets themselves but instead on motions to simply begin debate on them.
Under Congress' arcane budget process, a budget plan is not actual legislation but a nonbinding blueprint that sets a framework for future legislation. While it sets goals for raising or lowering taxes and imposing spending cuts, in most years the vote on a so-called budget resolution is mostly symbolic. In many years, that follow-up legislation is simply a round of appropriations bills.
With the House and Senate controlled by different parties, there's no hope for a final compromise between the two chambers.
In fact, Democrats have pulled the plug on the budget process for now, awaiting the results of negotiations between Vice President Joe Biden and senior lawmakers in both parties that are aimed at producing an agreement on a package of spending cuts exceeding $1 trillion over the coming decade. The cuts would be packaged with must-pass legislation to permit the government to keep issuing bonds to finance its operations and keep its promises to investors in U.S. debt as it faces a deficit of $1.6 trillion this year.
The Biden-led talks are expected to take several weeks or longer as an Aug. 2 deadline for raising the so-called debt limit looms.
The decision by Democrats to not advance a budget spares them from a process that would expose rifts within the party over taxes and how far to cut spending on federal benefit programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad originally drew up a plan heavy on spending cuts -- with a 3 to 1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases -- but ran into opposition from liberals like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
But Conrad's latest plan relies more on tax increases to meet a goal of cutting projected deficits by $4 trillion over the coming decade. He might be able to get that plan approved by the Budget Committee, which is stocked with party loyalists, but it would likely fail on the floor due to opposition from party moderates.
The Democratic stall on the budget spares Democrats from a full slate of politically difficult votes.
Republicans have been blasting Democrats on a daily basis for their failure to produce a budget, saying they're failing to live up to their responsibility as the Senate's majority party.
"At a moment when our debts and deficits threaten the very future of our nation, Democrats have no excuse for proposing no vision of their own," said Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
The top Republican on the Budget panel, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, hasn't offered an alternative, either, though conservative Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Paul offered stringent plans that would bring the budget into balance.
Toomey's plan would have produced a balanced budget by 2020 and received 42 GOP votes.
Paul offered a budget that he said would produce a surplus by 2016 by eliminating four Cabinet departments, aid to Israel, and a wide variety of programs for the poor. It failed by a 90-7 vote.