Budget deal gains key support as vote nears


WHAT’S NEXT

— A House vote on the budget deal is expected as early as today, one day before the chamber is set to adjourn for the year.

— The Senate would vote before leaving town next week.

— The agreement is aimed at averting another government shutdown early next year.

News services

A budget deal to avert future government shutdowns gained important ground Wednesday among House Republicans, even though it would nudge federal deficits higher three years in a row.

There was grumbling from opposite ends of the political spectrum — conservatives complaining about spending levels and liberal Democrats unhappy there would be no extension of an expiring program of benefits for the long-term unemployed.

Yet other lawmakers, buffeted by criticism after last October’s partial government shutdown, found plenty to like in the agreement and suggested it could lead to future cooperation. The plan was announced Tuesday evening by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and quickly endorsed by President Barack Obama.

A House vote is expected as early as today as lawmaker race to wrap up their work for the year.

“A lot of folks will probably vote for it even though they would rather not support this type of legislation, but we have to get the spending issue completed so that there is some consistency in the future,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called the agreement “a breath of fresh air” that could lead to further progress. Added House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, “If you’re for more deficit reduction, you’re for this agreement.”

Boehner also took a swipe at outside groups that helped steer Republicans toward the politically damaging shutdown and opposed the current deal before it was sealed. “They’re using our members, and they’re using the American people for their own goals. This is ridiculous,” he said, evidently referring to the Club For Growth, Heritage Action and other organizations.

Modest in scope, the deal underscores how much ambitions have shriveled since the summer of 2011, when Obama and Boehner held private but unsuccessful talks on a “grand bargain” to reduce deficits by $4 trillion over a decade.

As drafted, the bill would reverse $63 billion in across-the-board spending cuts scheduled to take effect in the current budget year and the next one, easing a crunch on programs as diverse as environmental protection and the Pentagon.

It would offset the higher spending with $85 billion in savings over a decade from higher fees and relatively modest curtailments of government benefit programs.

Nearly a third of the total savings would come almost a decade from now, in 2022 and 2023, partly from extending a current 2 percent cut in payments to Medicare providers.

Other changes are scheduled to begin earlier. Future federal workers would pay more toward their own retirement, fees would rise on air travelers and corporations would pay more to the government agency that guarantees their pension programs.

With the increased spending to begin immediately and much of the savings delayed, Congressional Budget Office estimates showed the deal would push deficits higher than currently projected in the current year and each of the next two.

Red ink would rise by about $23 billion in this 2014 fiscal year, $18 billion in the next year and about $4 billion in the one after that, the CBO said.

Ryan briefed members of the Republican rank and file in private on the deal, then emerged to tell reporters it “helps produce more certainty because it stops a potential government shutdown in January and it stops a potential government shutdown in October.

“We think that’s good for the country. At the same time, we wanted to make sure that we are taking a step in the right direction for fiscal discipline,” he added.

As his party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee and a potential contender for the White House in 2016, Ryan may well have to defend the agreement against criticism from other presidential hopefuls.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., also counted among his party’s presidential contenders, criticized the deal. “‘I think to walk away from the already agreed-upon reductions in spending that were so difficult to achieve, I think opens the floodgates that really threaten to put us right back in these spending habits and really, we’re going to continue to have a government that spends more money than it takes in,” he said.

Democrats were less than ecstatic, too, given that Republicans refused to include the extension of unemployment benefits.

“Looking at it on its own merits, I think the pros outweigh the cons,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who worked privately to secure a last-minute change that shields current federal workers from higher pension costs.