Budget Deal Could Stumble Hard in the Senate

WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans are lining up to oppose the two-year budget agreement that passed the House on Thursday, placing the package in some jeopardy if it fails to attract the expected overwhelming Democratic support.

A growing number of GOP lawmakers who have expressed their reluctance, including Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, and Sen. John Cornyn, of Texas, the Senate Republican whip, are facing re-election challenges from their right flank, generating political pressure to oppose the plan.

In fact, Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas), who is running against Cornyn in the Texas Senate primary, opposed the package, calling it a “terrible budget deal” that “explodes the spending caps, balloons the deficit and betrays conservatives and the Constitution.”

Not to be outdone in a conservative state that views President Obama with a jaundiced eye, Cornyn told reporters during a conference call that he was concerned about the budget bill “because it breaks the spending caps that were a part of the Budget Control Act, which is one of the main reasons why federal spending has actually gone down this year and last year as opposed to having a straight upward trajectory.”

All three members of the Senate GOP leadership – McConnell, Cornyn and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the caucus chairman – are expected to be no votes when Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, calls the measure up for a vote. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, is against it and anticipates Republicans will wage a filibuster, meaning proponents will be required to attract 60 votes in the 100-member chamber to gain passage.

Three lawmakers considered in the top tier of potential candidates for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 – Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) -- have made it clear they intend to vote against the bill.

Reid hopes to hold a cloture vote on Tuesday, a procedural move that could lead to a final vote on the measure. But Sen. Dick Durbin, of Illinois, the Senate Democratic whip, told reporters on Thursday that leadership remains unsure they have the votes necessary to gain passage.

'We need Republican votes to pass the budget agreement, period,” Durbin said. “We need at least five. And I’m hoping that there will be more than that.”

But at this early juncture, Durbin acknowledged, “there are not five Republicans who have announced they’re for it.”

At least two lawmakers who generally side with Democrats, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), are hinting they may oppose the bill, which could leave supporters needing seven Republican votes to pass. Sanders expressed disappointment that the budget package does nothing to create jobs and would not extend emergency unemployment benefits that expire at the end of this year for 1.3 million Americans.

“It is incomprehensible to me that the Republicans continue to protect huge corporate loopholes that benefit some of the largest and most profitable corporations in America,” Sanders said. “This obviously is not the budget I would have written.”

The two-year budget agreement, primarily the work of Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee, and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, increases projected spending overall for the 2014 fiscal year from $967 billion to $1.012 trillion, with an additional increase to $1.014 trillion in 2015.

The agreement, which passed the House 332-94, would provide $63 billion in sequester relief over two years, split evenly between defense and non-defense programs. In fiscal year 2014, defense discretionary spending would be set at $520.5 billion and non-defense discretionary spending would be set at $491.8 billion. It replaces $63 billion in automatic spending cuts in part by reducing spending in some targeted programs while increasing revenues without benefit of a direct tax increase.

The plan extends a 2 percent cut to Medicare for two years, through 2023. The plan also increases airline ticket fees in an effort to offset security costs. Pensions for federal workers and military personnel will be cut.

Congressional leaders are banking on the plan to avoid a governmental shutdown. The federal government closed its doors for 16 days in October when lawmakers proved unable to agree on a spending plan. A stopgap measure expires on Jan. 15, raising the specter of another shutdown if the Murray-Ryan plan falls flat.

It originally was thought the Senate might prove an easier sell than the House but GOP lawmakers in the upper chamber have offered a variety of reasons for opposing the plan. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), facing a tough re-election fight in the 2014 Republican primary, opposes a provision that imposes a one percent reduction in cost of living benefits for some military retirees, a move he said “could significantly impact military retiree benefits.”

“I believe it will do disproportionate harm to our military retirees," Graham said. “Our men and women in uniform have served admirably during some of our nation's most troubling times. They deserve more from us in their retirement than this agreement provides."

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who originally expressed his intent to vote for the plan, is reportedly reconsidering his intentions because of the cut in military retiree benefits, which carries a $6 billion price tag over 10 years. The two political allies are joined by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).

"I cannot support a budget agreement that fails to deal with the biggest drivers of our debt but instead pays for more federal spending on the backs of our active duty and military retirees -- those who have put their lives on the line to defend us,” Ayotte said. “My hope is that both parties can work together to replace these unfair cuts that impact our men and women in uniform with more responsible savings, such as the billions that the Government Accountability Office has identified in waste, duplication and fraud across the federal government."

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), one of the lawmakers most closely aligned with the Tea Party movement, objected to the implementation of spending levels above those imposed by sequestration – an across-the-board spending cut adopted as part of an earlier budget agreement.

“Rather than enacting reforms to make government more efficient, the budget deal makes more government more expensive,” Lee said. “Sequestration is far from ideal, but at least it forced Congress get serious about excessive spending. This deal cuts into the modest gains taxpayers have won since 2011 by trading concrete spending reductions over the next two years for theoretical spending cuts a decade from now. In the meantime, the deal raises taxes on all air travelers so that Congress can continue to ignore both waste in discretionary spending and the ticking fiscal time-bomb of our entitlement programs.”

Cruz, another Tea Party favorite – this one with presidential ambitions – said the budget deal “moves in the wrong direction -- it spends more, taxes more, and allows continued funding for Obamacare. I cannot support it.”

“Supporters of this plan are asking for more spending now in exchange for minor changes that may possibly reduce spending later,” Cruz said. “That may be a fine deal for Washington, but it’s not for the American people."

Supporters are hoping to attract backing from some hesitant Republicans to at least allow a vote on the package. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who served on the conference committee and was a budget director for former President George W. Bush, heads that list, along with uncommitted lawmakers like Sens. Susan Collins, (R-Maine), Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), and John Hoeven (R-N.D.).