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.”
Graham proved particularly incensed, maintaining that the measure ultimately is likely to succeed because “everybody’s hellbent to get out of town and not shut down the government” even though it’s possible to achieve both before Jan. 15 – the day the current stopgap funding measure expires.
“Of all the people we could have picked on to screw, how could we arrive here?” Graham asked. “How could we have done this? I’ll tell you how it happens — you get in a hurry and we’re insensitive as a Congress and, quite frankly, as a country.”
Graham vowed that the military retirement cuts will be restored at some point.
“Not only are we going to right this wrong, we’re going to remind people who you are,” he told retired military personnel at a Tuesday press conference. “And any politician who wants to do this again is gonna get the hell kicked out of him.”
But Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), one of the 12 GOP lawmakers who supported cloture, said that while the measure doesn’t address every issue he had hoped for, “sometimes the answer has to be yes.”
“The reality is that Republicans only control one-half of one-third of government,” Hatch said. “Ultimately, this agreement upholds the principles conservatives stand for and, with Democrats controlling the White House and the Senate, it is the best we could hope for. I know that crafting this budget was hard fought and it’s built on the necessary consensus that reflects divided government.”
Hatch noted the agreement reduces the nation’s debt over the long-term, prevents another government shutdown and “stops the budget battles that have rocked America with economic uncertainty and political pessimism.”
“Much more work needs to be done to address the number one drivers of our country’s debt – our entitlement programs,” Hatch said. “But my hope is that this budget agreement paves the way to greater stability, lasting deficit reduction and the political will to tackle those challenges in the near future.”
The compromise increases spending for the current 2014 fiscal year from $967 billion to $1.012 trillion, with an additional increase to $1.014 trillion in 2015 without a direct tax increase. The spending increases, which particularly benefit defense programs, are offset by increasing the amount federal workers contribute to their retirement plans, adding a fee to airline tickets to help pay for security and the military retirement provision.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that although a budget revised along the lines of the agreement “doesn’t solve every budget problem facing DoD, it will help address our military readiness challenge by restoring funding for training and procurement – especially in fiscal year 2014.”
Conservative groups, like FreedomWorks, were unanimous in their opposition.
“This deal is the ‘same old same old’ that Americans have come to expect from Washington,” the Club for Growth said in a statement. “It’s a deliberate attempt to avoid modest but much needed spending cuts in exchange for the promise of spending cuts in the future. It also includes revenue increases that do nothing to reduce the size of government. Worse, this deal is likely only the first attempt at undoing the sequester completely.”
A final vote could come as early as Wednesday.