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Senate panel approves GOP budget plan

WASHINGTON (AP) — A Senate panel Thursday approved a GOP budget plan that would curb federal benefit programs by $551 billion over the next five years and reject President Donald Trump's plan to use budget tricks to pad the Pentagon budget.

The Budget Committee approved the nonbinding measure by a party-line vote. The budget plan probably won't head to the floor for vote by the full Senate, however, and won't have much bearing on Capitol Hill efforts later this year to reverse automatic spending cuts that are slated to strike the Pentagon and domestic accounts.

It would ease the deficit from a projection of $903 billion this year to $748 billion in 2024. Chairman Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., said the plan proposes "reasonable and incremental steps to reduce the deficit."

But Democrats said proposed cuts to health care, student loans and compensation for federal workers were unfair and said cuts to day-to-day operating budgets of federal agencies are unrealistic. The Senate panel's two-day hearing on the measure featured lots of complaints from Democrats that Washington's arcane annual budget process is pretty much a waste of time. The annual budget measure has no force of law and its policy prescriptions are usually ignored. While it can set in motion a filibuster-proof opportunity to legislate — such as twin GOP efforts in 2017 to repeal the Affordable Care Act and enact tax cuts — that won't happen this year now that Democrats control the House.

"The Budget Committee has two purposes. One is to provide a messaging opportunity for each party and the second is to provide a delivery vehicle ... that can allow the majority party in the Senate a one-time annual bypass around the filibuster," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. "It is not configured to address the deficit or the debt."

For their part, House Democrats are likely to skip the whole exercise since their membership appears unlikely to be able to agree on a budget plan. Democrats face divisions between progressives seeking more money for domestic programs and more moderate members in swing districts who fear being attacked on tax hikes.

House Democratic leaders haven't shown much interest in trying to pressure colleagues to unite the wings of their caucus around a messaging measure that's going nowhere with Republicans controlling the Senate or with President Donald Trump.

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