WASHINGTON – The two-year federal budget agreement passed a major Senate test on Tuesday and now appears headed for easy passage despite stern objections by conservatives and opposition from a majority of upper chamber Republicans.
In a 67-33 vote, the upper chamber authorized a final vote on the measure, the product of a House-Senate conference committee. The House passed the package in overwhelming fashion last week. In this instance, all 53 Democrats and two independents who generally side with the party voted in support of the bill along with 12 Republicans.
The vote was on cloture – whether or not to proceed to a final vote. A few of the 12 Republicans who opted to proceed are expected to oppose the bill itself.
One of those, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), said, “Although I can’t support it, I appreciate the efforts of Rep. Ryan and Sen. Murray to bring certainty to the budget process, which is why I voted earlier today to allow a Senate vote on their agreement, which had passed the House with two-to-one Republican support.”
The other GOP votes to move the bill forward came from Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee who formulated the agreement with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, acknowledged that the compromise “isn’t exactly what I would have written on my own” and that “neither side got everything they wanted, and both sides had to give a bit.”
“This bipartisan bill takes the first steps toward rebuilding our broken budget process and, hopefully, toward rebuilding our broken Congress,” Murray said. “We’ve spent far too long here scrambling to fix artificial crises instead of working together to solve the big problems we all know we need to address.”
Some foes, like Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, criticized the plan because it provided an increase in federal spending for the current 2014 fiscal year, thus busting an agreement reached as a result of the earlier Budget Control Act that imposed across-the-board cuts known as sequestration.
“The Budget Control Act was designed to cut spending in the short and long term and I remain convinced that Congress should continue to adhere to the fiscal restraints it set,” McConnell said. “For the first time since the Korean War, government spending has declined for two years in a row as a result of the BCA. This was hard-won progress on the road to getting our nation’s fiscal house in order. We should not go back on that commitment.”
But most of the opposition appeared to center on a provision that slices the cost-of-living adjustments in benefits for working-age military retirees – including disabled former military personnel — by one percent beginning in December 2015. The proposal was included as a way to offset spending increases.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, said he was “deeply troubled” by the cuts, totaling $6.3 billion.
“It is unthinkable that this provision would be included in a deal that spares current civilian workers from the same treatment,” Sessions said. “An equivalent amount of savings and more can be easily found.”
Three lawmakers, Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), issued a statement maintaining it is “wrong to try to achieve these goals on the backs of our military retirees-who have risked their lives to defend our country and who have already sacrificed so much.”
“We were also appalled to learn that this legislation would even reduce the retirements of those who have been injured in the line of duty and have been medically retired as a result,” they said. “That is unconscionable.”