WASHINGTON - With a handful of votes from Democrats, the Senate gave final approval yesterday to a budget blueprint that delivers a congressional endorsement to President Bush's plan for large tax cuts and more tightly controlled spending.
The $1.95 trillion budget plan prevailed, 53-47, despite the defection of 10 of the 15 Democratic senators who had backed an earlier version of the plan - one that called for higher spending on education.
Just two of the 50 Republican senators - James M. Jeffords of Vermont and Lincoln D. Chafee of Rhode Island - voted against the budget yesterday. The five Democrats who backed it were John B. Breaux of Louisiana, Max Baucus of Montana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Max Cleland and Zell Miller, both of Georgia.
The action in the evenly divided Senate, coming a day after the House approved the same measure on a mostly party-line vote, was cheered by the White House. It lifted the last barrier before the Senate can enact the 11-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut package that Republicans hope to pass before Memorial Day.
The $1.35 trillion figure is less than the $1.6 trillion in tax cuts that Bush had long pushed for. But the package would still amount to the largest tax cuts Congress has approved in two decades.
"The economic recovery package that the president has talked about is on the way," said Ari Fleischer, Bush's spokesman. "Tax relief is on the way."
Details of the package are to be announced today in advance of votes beginning next week.
The first $100 billion in tax cuts is expected to be enacted starting this year as a way to energize the economy. This would be achieved by dropping the rate on the lowest income bracket - which affects all taxpayers - and by boosting the child tax credit.
An additional $1.25 trillion in tax relief would be granted over the next 11 years though a combination of lowering rates in the remaining brackets, reducing the "marriage penalty" that affects many two-income couples, phasing out the estate tax and boosting tax benefits for pension savings.
"You have made us change direction," Sen. Pete V. Domenici, the New Mexico Republican who is chairman of the Budget Committee, said of Bush. "You have moved us in the direction of giving back taxes to the American people, rather than giving them the last cut of the deck."
Democratic leaders complained, though, that the tax cut package will be so expensive that other needs, especially education, will inevitably being short-changed. They further complained that the president was deliberately understating projected spending for such needs as agriculture and the military, including missile defense.
The blueprint, approved for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, serves as a guideline for lawmakers and does not need Bush's signature. The details will be set in separate bills later.
The budget would cap average spending growth for most programs at 4 percent for next year, though lawmakers are likely to exceed such caps once they draft the spending bills, as they have in previous years. There will likely be demands from lawmakers in both parties for further tax cuts and additional spending.
"That is the dirty little secret of the Bush budget: Whole chunks of what is really intended have been left out," said Sen. Kent Conrad, a Democrat from North Dakota. "If all the money that we're actually going to spend were in the budget along with the tax cut, it wouldn't add up."
Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, warned: "We are running the risk, by the excessive tax cut, that we will not pay down the [national] debt at the rate we could have done. We won't invest in a number of programs for the future strength of the country."
Some Democrats argued that Bush's tax cuts are so costly that the only way to pay for the new spending likely to be approved during the next decade will be to raid the Social Security trust fund. And if projections of the budget surplus - now estimated at $5.6 trillion - fall short, such a raid would be even likelier, they contended.
But Breaux, the leader of the centrist Democrats who gave Bush his winning margin, urged support for the budget plan and received a phone call of thanks from the president after the vote.
"Is it a perfect document?" Breaux asked. "Of course not. But does it advance the cause of government in a democracy that is almost evenly divided between the two parties? I think the answer is yes, it does."
Speaking to reporters, Breaux noted that the budget plan was not binding and that lawmakers who object to portions of it, especially on spending, could work to change it later.
In fact, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott declared that the Senate would not be bound by either the tax cut or spending limits in the budget. "Anytime we can get 60 votes, we can change it," Lott said.
Amassing 60 votes in the 50-50 Senate is a tall order, though. The passage of the budget plan ensures that up to $1.35 trillion in tax cuts can now be enacted with a simple 51-vote majority - including a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Dick Cheney, if necessary - not the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster. But tax cuts in excess of the $1.35 trillion could be subject to a filibuster and thus might require 60 votes.
The 13 separate bills that set spending levels for government programs are all subject to filibuster.
Sixty-five senators - including 15 Democrats - had voted last month for the original Senate version of the blueprint, but only after adding nearly $30 billion in extra spending, much of it for education.
Most of that money was dropped from the final budget proposal in negotiations with the White House and House Republican leaders. Under the plan that received final approval yesterday, spending for most domestic programs would rise next year by an average of 4 percent - the level Bush had proposed, but less than half the 8.4 percent originally endorsed by the Senate.
Domenici argued that the budget retains a $30 billion increase "in real money" for next year, much of it for education. What's more, Domenici said, the plan puts more than $2 trillion aside to pay down the national debt and provides $300 billion to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.
But Sen. Thomas R. Carper, a Delaware Democrat who was one of the centrists who had supported the blueprint last month, said he voted against the final version because it "abandoned the Senate's commitment to improving education and could lead to a return to deficit spending."
"I fear we are going to end up cutting taxes more than we ought to and, in the end, come back and say we are spending more money than we can afford," Carper said. "My fear is we are shortchanging the states, the schools and the kids we say we care so much about."
Chafee, one of the two Republicans who voted against the budget yesterday, explained: "I just think the tax cut is too big to accommodate the other needs we have, particularly in education."