Congressional budget war: promise and failure

By Bill Kaplan

"We really don't have 218 votes to determine a bathroom break over here on our side. So how are we going to get 218 votes on transportation, or trade, or whatever the issue? We might as well face the political reality of our circumstances and then act accordingly." 
- Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Charlie Dent 

Since 2011 GOP House Speaker John Boehner has had to rely on House Democrats to get anything done, given the scorched-earth opposition of GOP firebrands: avoiding a fiscal cliff (expiration of Bush tax cuts), renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, Hurricane Sandy disaster relief, ending the 2013 GOP-led government shutdown and resolving a standoff this year on funding the Department of Homeland Security (which nearly shut down). However, most House Republicans accepted Rep. Dent's wisdom on the "doc fix" bill. 

The GOP-led House passed a bipartisan "doc fix" agreement, negotiated by Speaker Boehner and shrewd Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, 392 -- 37. (Wisconsin GOP Reps. Sean Duffy, Reid Ribble and Paul Ryan - yes, but fellow GOP Reps. Glenn Grothman and Jim Sensenbrenner - no. Wisconsin Democratic Reps. Ron Kind, Gwen Moore and Mark Pocan - yes). The compromise bill, once common in Congress, corrected a flawed reimbursement formula for Medicare doctors (thereby keeping them seeing patients), extended funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program for two years and appropriated funds for community health centers for the poor. It was a small accomplishment, but only partly paid for and overshadowed by House and Senate budget shenanigans. 

Prior to the "doc fix" vote, the GOP-led House embraced austerity and obsession -- killing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) for the umpteenth (57th) time. On a partisan vote the House passed a draconian, heartless, fairy dust and Orwellian budget 228 - 199. (Wisconsin GOP Reps. Duffy, Grothman, Ribble and Ryan - yes. Wisconsin GOP Rep. Sensenbrenner as well as Wisconsin Democratic Reps. Kind, Moore and Pocan - no). 

The GOP budget turns Medicare into a voucher program, ends health insurance for over 16 million, including over 207,000 Wisconsinites, by repealing the ACA (but still counting revenue and savings from the ACA!) and slashes funding for education, farm supports, medical research, safety net, transportation and other nondefense spending. Defense spending gets a big off-budget boost, while taxes for the rich and corporations are cut. 

The Senate followed suit after both House votes, passing the same type of mean-spirited budget 52 - 46. (Wisconsin GOP Sen. Ron Johnson - yes; Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin - no). The Senate GOP budget slashes Medicare but does not privatize it, and included the same GOP House cuts and repeals the ACA. And, it permanently eliminates the estate tax, which applies to 0.12 percent of all estates! (Sen. Johnson - yes, Sen. Baldwin - no). One oddity: Sen. Johnson first voted against a paid sick leave amendment, but then "switched" and joined Sen. Baldwin in voting for it (Politico). 

Get ready for a major confrontation with the White House. Only President Obama's veto can save the nation. It's going to be a long year of brinksmanship. 

-- Kaplan wrote a guest column from Washington, D.C. for the Wisconsin State Journal from 1995 - 2009.

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