The House passed a $3 trillion Democratic spending plan on Thursday as Congress engaged in a day of budget theater that had as much to do with the political bottom line as federal fiscal policy.
With three presidential candidates on hand, the Senate headed toward a final budget vote as well. Both parties seized on the annual debate over the spending blueprint as a way to shape the 2008 campaign dialogue and try to force the White House contenders into embarrassing votes or build opposition to their policy ideas.
The House voted 212-207 to approve the plan developed by Democrats that would increase spending on domestic programs like education, health care, veterans benefits and new energy technology, while allowing some tax cuts pushed by President Bush to expire in two years.
The House defeated a Republican alternative that would have slowed spending on Medicare and other entitlement programs, permanently extended the tax cuts, invested more in military spending and put a one-year freeze on the congressional pet projects known as earmarks.
House members agreed to convene in a rare closed session to privately discuss the administration’s terrorist surveillance program before a vote on Friday on a Democratic version of the spy program that President Bush opposes.
In the Senate, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, hoped to cast a symbolic vote against earmarks and swooped in for the all-day budget vote-a-thon. So did the Democratic presidential rivals, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois. Those two, who also back the earmark restriction, took time for a private conversation on the floor as they and their colleagues milled about for hours while dozens of votes were taken.
The two budgets, which must be reconciled for a final vote later, are non-binding and represent no formal action on either spending or taxes. But a final budget serves as the framework for later spending and tax decisions and as a policy manifesto for the majority party.
Senate Democrats sought to quickly take the topic of tax cuts off the table. By a 99-1 vote, the Senate extended elements of Bush’s cuts that apply mainly to the middle class like the $1,000 child tax credit. But a Republican proposal to make a similar pledge on lower rates for capital gains and stock dividends was defeated, with Clinton and Obama among those opposing it.