WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats overwhelmingly embraced President Barack Obama's ambitious and expensive agenda for the nation Thursday, endorsing a $3.5 trillion spending plan that sets the stage for the president to pursue his most far-reaching priorities.
Voting along party lines, the House and Senate approved budget blueprints that would trim Obama's spending proposals for the fiscal year that begins in October and curtail his plans to cut taxes. The blueprints, however, would permit work to begin on the central goals of Obama's presidency: an expansion of health care coverage for the uninsured, more money for college loans and a cap-and-trade system to reduce gases that contribute to global warming.
The measures now move to a conference committee where negotiators must resolve differences between the two chambers, a prelude to the more difficult choices that will be required to implement Obama's initiatives. While Democrats have sanctioned the president's vision for transforming huge sectors of the economy, they remain fiercely divided over the details.
There is no agreement, for example, on how to pay for an overhaul of the health care system expected to add more than $1 trillion to the budget over the next decade, nor is there consensus on how to spend hundreds of billions of dollars the government stands to collect by setting limits on greenhouse gas emissions and forcing industry to buy permits to pollute. Those issues will be decided in committees.
Republicans blasted the budget as a reckless manifesto that would greatly expand the size of government and double the national debt within five years.
Democrats rallied behind the president, however, arguing that their budget would rebuild an economy ruined by eight years of Republican leadership. In the House, fiscal conservatives generally fell in line behind the plan, even though it would generate a deficit of more than $1.2 trillion next year and produce large annual deficits well into the future. The progressive caucus offered an alternative budget plan primarily to voice opposition to the war in Iraq, though many of its members also voted for the revised Obama budget plan.
While the deficit forecast is exceedingly high by historical standards, it would represent an improvement over this year's projected total of $1.8 trillion, swollen by measures to rejuvenate the economy.
The biggest dispute between the chambers is whether to use a procedural shortcut that could allow Obama's health, education and energy initiatives to pass the Senate with 51 votes rather than 60, eliminating the need to win over any Republicans.
Also in Washington
Regulating tobacco: Antismoking forces won a long-awaited victory Thursday as the House passed legislation that would give the federal government key controls over the tobacco industry for the first time. The measure, passed 298-112, gives the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate — but not ban — cigarettes and other tobacco products. The Senate could take up its version later this month.
SEBELIUS ON TRACK: Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius stepped around potential land mines on abortion and her tax errors Thursday as she testified at a hearing en route to her expected confirmation as health and human services secretary. She wasn't asked any questions about abortion, an issue that's caused loud complaints from conservative groups, nor was she asked about what she has called "unintentional errors" related to charitable deductions, mortgage interest and business expenses on her most recent tax returns. She has paid nearly $8,000 in taxes and penalties. A nomination vote was delayed until late this month.
new census director: Obama picked Robert Groves, 60, to be the next census director, turning to a survey researcher and former associate census director who has clashed with Republicans over the use of statistical sampling to lead the high-stakes head count. House Republicans expressed dismay over the selection of Groves, saying he raised serious questions about Obama's political intentions. When he was the bureau's associate director, Groves was among several officials who recommended the 1990 census be statistically adjusted to make up for an undercount of roughly 5 million people, many of them minorities in dense urban areas who tend to vote for Democrats.