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House on track to pass budget plan with deep cuts

WASHINGTON — A familiar budget plan to sharply cut safety-net programs for the poor and clamp down on domestic agencies performing the nuts-and-bolts programs of the government is cruising to passage in the tea party-flavored House.

The Republican measure is advancing to the finish line in the House as the Senate starts a lengthy slog toward passage of a rival budget measure. It takes a sharply different view, restoring automatic cuts to agency budgets and increasing taxes by $1 trillion over the coming decade.

The dueling budget plans are anchored on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum in Washington, appealing to core partisans in the warring parties gridlocked over persistent budget deficits. President Barack Obama is exploring the chances of forging a middle path that blends new taxes and modest curbs to government benefits programs.

The sharp contrast over the 2014 budget and beyond came as the House is positioned to clear unfinished budget business — a sweeping, government-wide funding bill to keep Cabinet agencies running through the 2013 budget year, which ends Sept. 30.

The Senate passed the bipartisan 2013 measure by a sweeping 73-26 vote Wednesday after easing cuts that threatened intermittent closures of meat packing plants starting this summer and reviving college tuition grants for active-duty members of the military. The cuts were mandated by automatic spending cuts that took effect at the beginning of the month.

Looking to the future, Democrats and Republicans staked out divergent positions over what to do about spiraling federal health care costs and whether to raise taxes to rein in still-steep government deficits.

The long-term GOP budget plan, authored by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., offers slashing cuts to domestic agencies, the Medicaid health care plan for the poor and "Obamacare" subsidies while exempting the Pentagon and Social Security beneficiaries. The measure proposes shifting programs like Medicaid to the states but is sometimes scant on details about the very cuts it promises.

The Ryan measure revives a controversial plan to turn the Medicare programs for the elderly into a voucher-like system — for future beneficiaries born in 1959 or later — into a program in which the government subsidizes the purchase of health insurance instead of directly paying hospital and doctor bills. Critics say the idea would mean ever-spiraling out-of-pocket costs for care, but Ryan insists the plan would inject competition into a broken system.

The cuts to domestic agencies like the FBI, Border Patrol and National Institutes of Health could approach 20 percent when compared with levels agreed to as part of a hard-fought budget deal from the summer of 2011. That could run the already troubled appropriations process — it features 12 spending bills that are supposed to be passed by Congress each year — into the ground.

Fresh from passing the 2013 wrap-up measure, the Senate was turning to a plan by new Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., that would add nearly $1 trillion in new taxes over the coming decade in an attempt to stabilize the $16 trillion-plus national debt. But Murray's plan would actually increase government spending after the $1.2 trillion cost of repealing the automatic cuts, called a sequester in Washington-speak. That means the net cuts to the deficit would amount to just a few hundred billion dollars in a federal budget estimated at $46 trillion or so over the coming decade.

"We need to tackle our deficit and debt fairly and responsibly," Murray said. "We need to keep the promises we've made as a nation to our seniors, our families and our communities."

At issue is the arcane process by which Congress approves a budget. It involves special legislation, called a budget resolution, that sets nonbinding targets for taxes and spending but relies on follow-up legislation to go into effect.

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