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What You Actually Need To Know About the Budget Right Now

What's going on on Capitol Hill right now? And why does it matter?
A copy of the House Republican budget proposal lays on a podium on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 17, 2015. The plan includes a boost in defense spending but cuts in the Medicaid program for the poor, food stamps and health care subsidies. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)AP

It hasn’t prompted many flashy headlines or gotten lots of celebrities weighing in on Twitter, but Capitol Hill has been busy this week going through the wonky, procedurally-complicated political dance known as “the budget process.” And as dry as it might sound, it could have far-reaching consequences for the battle for the White House in 2016 and the future of the GOP.

We always hear about how divided House Republicans are. How did they even come together to pass a budget?

Good question! House leaders were worried about this very thing after a pretty public spat broke out between Republicans who want to increase defense spending and those who say that the federal government should slash spending across all major departments in order to balance the budget. The way they managed to get a budget passed on Wednesday: Letting members blow off steam by voting on a bunch of different budgets, including some with extra Pentagon money and some without. This was actually a pretty obscure trick, known as the “queen of the Hill” rule, that allows Congress to vote on several different budget proposals from both parties. Under that rule, whichever proposal gets the MOST votes goes to final passage. And House leaders got what they wanted, passing a very conservative budget an extra boost for the military.

So wait, what does passing a budget actually mean?

In this phase, a budget is a nonbinding plan that lets each party lay out its priorities and try to make political points. But the budget does set overall spending levels for the government, which Congress’s appropriators later break into smaller, specific bills that can become law. It’s still an important process, though (more on that below).

Republicans want to use the budget to repeal Obamacare. Will it work?

Well, no, not in the short run. That’s because the president is sure to veto anything that comes to his desk that guts his signature legislative achievement.

But it doesn’t mean that Republicans won’t try: Now that the GOP has a majority in both the House and the Senate, most GOP members want to make good on their campaign promise to vote to fully repeal the health care law. If they can eventually get a bill with repeal language to the president’s desk, they’ll paint it as a big victory because they’ll say that the president defied the will of Congress and the American people by vetoing it.

Wait, wait, wait. Anything controversial requires 60 votes in the Senate, and there aren’t that many Republicans. So how are they going to pass Obamacare repeal at all?

Here’s where it gets real wonky. Both House and Senate Republicans are hoping to use a tactic called “reconciliation” to push through legislation to repeal Obamacare. Back in the 1970s, when deficits were soaring but lawmakers worried there would never be enough political will to address them, Congress passed a law creating this procedure, which prevents Senate filibusters of legislation having to do with deficit-reduction. Under this procedure, bills that address the deficit only require 51 votes in the Senate, not the usual 60, to advance. Plus, they can’t be amended and debate is limited, so opponents can’t use their usual pesky delaying tactics to slow down votes.

Hmm… Why does this sound kinda familiar?

Check out the big brain on you! Yes! That’s because Democrats used this same tactic to get Obamacare through the Senate back in 2010! Republicans, as you might imagine, weren’t very happy about it, either.

Wow, so Republicans are going to use the same tactics to try to repeal the health care law as Democrats used to pass it? Isn’t that ironic?

Dontcha think?

Okay, going back to the budget, the House passed theirs, but what’s the Senate going to do about all this?

On Thursday, the Senate’s slated to have what’s called a VOTE-A-RAMA, which is a fun-sounding name for a lot of tired senators hanging out on Capitol Hill all night. During this process, senators can offer an unlimited amount of amendments on the budget the majority party has put forward. These votes always become very political; each party can use amendments to try to show what they care about – and try to get other politically vulnerable senators to have to vote for or against them. A lot of those political ads that include foreboding music and a deep voice saying “Senator So-and-So voted against puppies and apple pie” are the result of these kinds of votes.

So why should I care about any of this?

The budget process does offer a good look at what each party thinks the government should and shouldn’t be spending money on, which you should care about if you’re interested in where your tax dollars go. In their blueprints, Republicans say that the health care law should be repealed, that Medicaid should be turned into block grants, that Medicare should be partially privatized, and that controlling the deficit should be one of Congress’s most important priorities. Democrats want to see higher taxes on the wealthy, more tax credits for low-income Americans and a wider safety net for the poor. As candidates – for House, Senate and even the presidency – vote on or at least react to these proposals, we should get a better idea of what policies they might support in office.

- NBC's Frank Thorp and Alex Moe contributed