WASHINGTON — The Senate took a significant step toward rewriting the tax code Thursday night with the passage of a budget blueprint that would protect a $1.5 trillion tax cut from a Democratic filibuster.
The budget resolution could also pave the way for opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil exploration by ensuring that drilling legislation can pass with only Republican votes.
The Senate voted 51-49 to approve the blueprint. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who had complained about what he viewed as excessive war funding in the budget plan, was the lone Republican to vote against the measure.
Despite having full control of the government, Republicans have so far been unable to produce a marquee legislative achievement in the first year of Donald Trump's presidency, putting even more pressure on lawmakers to succeed in passing a tax bill. The budget's passage could keep Republicans on track to pass a tax package late this year or early in 2018.
The House could pick up the Senate-passed budget as early as next week and give final approval to parliamentary language protecting the Republicans' coveted tax effort. If House Republicans instead insist on negotiating a compromise that melds the Senate and House budget plans, tax legislation could be delayed.
"This is the last, best chance we will have to cut taxes," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Budget Committee, who warned that the consequences would be ruinous if the party failed.
"That will be the end of us as a party," he said, "because if you're a Republican and you don't want to simplify the tax code and cut taxes, what good are you to anybody?"
The Senate gave its approval to the budget blueprint Thursday night after considering a flurry of amendments, a tedious process that gives the minority party an opportunity to force the majority to endure politically difficult votes. One Democratic amendment that was rejected sought to stop tax cuts from going to the top 1 percent; another would have restored cuts to Medicare.
In Congress, the annual budget resolution provides an outline of federal spending and revenues. The Senate's blueprint, for the 2018 fiscal year that began Oct. 1, claims to achieve a balanced budget within a decade, assuming greater economic growth and using an accounting method that excludes Social Security. In order to erase projected deficits, it calls for trillions of dollars in spending cuts over the coming decade.
But the cuts exist only on paper, without legislation to achieve them.
Even so, Democrats sounded the alarm, warning that the aspirational cuts in the budget plan called for slicing more than $1 trillion from Medicaid and about $470 billion from Medicare over a decade.
Although Democrats have pleaded to have more say in the tax overhaul, parliamentary language in the budget resolution would allow Republicans to pass a tax bill without any cooperation from the minority party.
"Passing this budget is not a requirement for passing tax reform," said Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich. "Passing this budget is only a requirement to pass a tax bill with as few votes as possible, without input or buy-in from members of the minority."
For Republicans, the budget debate provided a moment to showcase their main goal in the coming months: approving an overhaul of the tax code for the first time in decades, which they hope will lead to greater economic growth.
But before they can move ahead with a tax bill, the House and Senate need to agree on the same budget resolution.
The House approved its budget resolution, which had long been stalled, on Oct. 5. The House budget also lays the groundwork for a tax bill, but, unlike the Senate's approach, it calls for the legislation to not add to the deficit.
The House budget resolution also seeks more concrete action when it comes to cutting spending, instructing committees to come up with legislation that would produce at least about $200 billion in savings.
The chairwoman of the House Budget Committee, Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., had seemed reluctant to jettison that piece of the blueprint. "What part of 'cut spending' does @SenateGOP not understand?" she wrote on Twitter last week. But Senate Republicans have shown no appetite to make spending cuts in tandem with the tax overhaul.
Reaching a quick deal on a budget resolution that would be acceptable to both the House and the Senate would be a boon to lawmakers working on the tax overhaul, as it would allow them to move ahead with their efforts.