The Senate passed a 2018 budget resolution late Thursday that will serve as the vehicle for comprehensive tax reform, the Republican Party's top legislative goal.
The measure passed 51-49, setting the stage for what will likely be a GOP-only push for tax reform in the coming weeks. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., was the lone "no" GOP vote against the budget, and announced his opposition earlier in the week to protest $43 billion added to an overseas war fund.
But other Republicans cheered the result and said it lets them move quickly toward a tax bill.
"Now's when the real work begins," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn, a top Budget Committee member. "This is like giving us the green light to start."
The House passed its own budget resolution earlier this month and will begin finalizing tax legislation next week.
Senate Republican leaders said they don't know yet whether the House will simply endorse the Senate budget bill or if the two chambers will come up with a compromise on the budget blueprints.
But the main reason for the budget is to set up an easier path for passing tax reform. For that reason, Senate GOP leaders said they hope the House simply endorses their budget blueprint to speed things along.
"That would make getting to tax reform that much faster," said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas.
The budget resolution is a critical ingredient for tax reform. The budget resolution authorizes tax cut legislation, which will let the Senate advance and pass the tax bill with just 51 votes, instead of the usual 60.
Republicans control 52 votes, a majority that would give them the power to unilaterally pass a tax reform bill if they are able to achieve near-total consensus within their own party.
The Senate's budget blueprint allows for a tax cut of up to $1.5 trillion over 10 years, a number that represents a compromise between Republicans who wanted far deeper tax cuts and GOP deficit hawks who fear the loss of tax revenue will leave the nation deeper in debt.
The GOP budget resolution calls for reducing federal spending by $5.1 trillion and it sticks to federally mandated, and unpopular, spending caps. The resolution projects $1 billion in deficit reduction by selling leases for oil and natural gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The House bill does not adhere to the spending caps, boosts defense spending, and slashes domestic spending. The House measure funds a southern border wall and reforms entitlement spending, which the Senate measure ignores.
The spending blueprints of either chamber are unlikely to ever become law. Typically, the two parties cut a large end-of-year spending compromise that reflects the priorities of both Republicans and Democrats and does away with the federally mandated spending caps.
Still, Republicans were optimistic that they were zeroing in on their real goal, which is tax reform.
"If we can coalesce around the goals of a fairer, simpler more pro-growth tax reform, I think we have an opportunity to really get something done," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
As Republicans worked to pass the budget Thursday night, Democrats had the ability to offer unlimited amendments. They used the opportunity to force Republicans to take awkward votes, especially ones meant to highlight the potential added debt that would come with the tax plan.
One, submitted by Mark Warner of Virginia, would have required that the Senate abide by rules ensuring that tax cuts be offset by tax hikes or spending cuts elsewhere in the budget. Sens. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Ben Cardin of Maryland offered amendments that would require a 60-vote threshold for a tax bill that added to the deficit. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota sent one that would have done the same for any bill that raised taxes on anyone making under $250,000.
Republicans blocked all those efforts, saying they would undermine the tax reform push. But conservatives also offered changes that were swept aside.
Paul, the Kentucky Republican with libertarian leanings, offered an amendment to pursue cuts to mandatory spending in addition to tax reform through the reconciliation procedure. Only three Republicans joined him.
A close vote came on an amendment from Paul to repeal Obamacare through the expedited process. Altogether, 33 Republicans voted for that amendment.