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Congress Set to Alter Focus After Passing Two Budgets

March 25, 2013
The Wall Street Journal
Janet Hook

After the Senate passed its budget this weekend, Congress is expected to pivot to issues such as immigration and guns before attempting a broader deal on taxes, spending and the national debt later this year.

Capitol Hill fell quiet as lawmakers headed home for a two-week spring recess, the longest pause in the Capitol Hill budget wars in months. Before leaving town, the Senate early Saturday morning and the House last week passed nonbinding budget blueprints that laid out the parties' competing fiscal priorities.

President Barack Obama is expected to release his own fiscal 2014 budget in early April—months late and almost an afterthought now that Senate passed a Democratic budget in sync with White House priorities.

The Senate budget calls for nearly $1 trillion in tax increases over 10 years and tries to reduce the deficit without making big changes in Medicare and other safety-net programs. The House GOP budget, by contrast, calls for eliminating the deficit in 10 years without raising taxes, while making major cuts in the growth of Medicare.

Mr. Obama has indicated a willingness to support bigger changes in Medicare and other entitlement programs than the Democratic budget called for, but only as part of broader deficit-reduction deal with Republicans that includes tax increases. The president isn't likely to detail such entitlement cuts as part of his formal budget request.

When the House and Senate return the week of April 8 from their spring recess, Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) has said House Republicans will begin meetings to decide how to handle the next budget challenge. Congress will have to raise the federal debt limit or else the U.S. Treasury will run out of cash to pay its bills.

Mr. Boehner has said the GOP won't approve any debt increase unless it is paired with matching budget cuts. Democrats have refused to make more big spending cuts unless they are linked to tax increases. Congress is expected to have until July or August to settle that conflict.

The Senate, meanwhile, plans in April to turn to gun-control legislation, Democrats' response to the mass shooting at a Newtown, Conn., school in December. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) plans to bring up a bill that includes broader background checks for gun purchasers, but not a controversial ban on semiautomatic firearms known as assault weapons. However, Mr. Reid has said he plans to hold votes on amendments on a wide range of gun measures, including the assault-weapons ban.

A compromise to overhaul immigration law may also soon surface in the Senate, where a bipartisan group of senators has been laboring to craft a bill spelling out a detailed plan to increase U.S. border security and provide a path to citizenship for millions of people now in the U.S. illegally.

The group is continuing to work privately on the bill through the spring recess, although they fell short of their goal of reaching consensus before leaving town.

Before passing the budget just before 5 a.m. Saturday, the Senate voted on dozens of symbolic, nonbinding amendments that forced lawmakers to go on the record on issues such as the estate tax, the health-care law and taxes on carbon emissions.

Republicans were particularly keen to put on the spot a handful of Democrats facing re-election in conservative states in 2014.

Four such Democrats voted against the budget in the end: Kay Hagan of North Carolina; Mark Pryor of Arkansas; Mark Begich of Alaska; and Max Baucus of Montana.

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