Barring a meltdown in the Senate next week—which remains a possibility—Congress is on the verge of making a little modern history with House passage Thursday night of a two-year budget bill that would fund the government until October 2015.
The 332-94 vote may bode well for passage in the Senate, which is expected but not assured due to Republican concerns about busting the spending caps in the Budget Control Act and a provision that would reduce retirement benefits for members of the military.
If those concerns are overcome and the Senate can muster 60 votes to move to the bill, it will mark the first time since 1997 that Congress has passed a complete budget.
To do that, Senate Democrats will need five Republicans to join them in voting for cloture next week to get the bill to the floor. They are expected to get them, though many Republican senators are staying mum about whether they will back the budget deal crafted by Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan.
A number of Senate Republicans said that they were waiting to see the vote margin in the House before making a determination. The overwhelming House vote Thursday should help push some of those Senate GOP votes into the "yes" column.
Senate Democratic vote-counters have begun preliminary checks and expect the legislation to pass with enough Republicans voting for cloture, according to a Senate Democratic aide. The cloture vote could come as early as Monday, with a final vote on the bill Tuesday.
Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine could be among the Republicans to support the measure. Both said that they were still making a decision about whether to vote in favor of the bill, but indicated that they would like to pass a budget.
"I don't like lots of pieces of what I'm seeing in this budget," Murkowski said Thursday. "But I think I'm at that point where to have an agreement, even though it may be imperfect, may be better than having no agreement at all."
Depending on the number of Republicans who vote for cloture, the Senate aide said, some Democrats may vote against ending debate because the legislation will not contain an extension of unemployment insurance, which is set to expire Dec. 28.
In the House Thursday night, an overwhelming majority of House Republicans lined up behind their leaders to approve the budget plan that has infuriated the party's conservative base. The bill passed with 169 Republicans and 163 Democrats voting in favor.
"It was much higher than I expected; I was very pleasantly surprised," Ryan said of the vote. "I think people are hungry to do things around here.... I got so many of my colleagues saying thank you for bringing some normalcy back to this place. I'm very pleased about that."
But the agreement received some opposition from both parties, with 62 Republicans and 32 Democrats opposing it. Democrats complained that the measure does not extend unemployment benefits, and Republicans cited concerns about easing the sequestration cuts while raising revenues. Several major conservative groups came out against the measure, but the opposition had little impact.
One fascinating aspect of the vote was an unusual split among the House's most conservative members.
Of the five-member "Jedi Council" group that worked to bridge the gap earlier this year between House Speaker John Boehner and House conservatives, three voted for the budget proposal and two voted against.
Reps. Tom Price of Georgia and Jeb Hensarling of Texas, both former chairmen of the Republican Study Committee, joined Ryan in approving the measure. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio and current RSC Chairman Steve Scalise of Louisiana opposed the deal.
Scalise had been undecided on the proposal since its unveiling and refused to comment on which way he was leaning before the vote. But after he fired the RSC's longtime executive director, Paul Teller, on Wednesday—a move that was heavily criticized by outside groups—Scalise would have endured even more right-wing opposition had he voted in favor of the deal.
One of the biggest surprises of the night came when Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia, a leading House conservative who was the architect of the House GOP's strategy to defund Obamacare, voted for the budget compromise. Graves, who sits on the Appropriations Committee, had previously expressed a desire to return to "regular order" in which appropriators write spending bills. Graves was greeted with a hearty round of handshakes from his colleagues after registering his vote.
Elsewhere, some other popular House conservatives who were previously undecided wound up splitting on the vote. Rep. David Schweikert of Arizona, who sports a perfect 100 percent on Heritage Action's legislative scorecard, kept his perfection intact by opposing the measure. On the flip side, Rep. Marlin Stutzman of Indiana, viewed as a potential successor to Scalise at the RSC, voted in favor of the budget deal.
On the other side of the aisle, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer was the only member of Democratic leadership to oppose the measure, citing both the lack of an extension for unemployment insurance and the fact that the bill did not replace all of the sequestration cuts. "The deal before us today does not deal with the fundamental issue of long-term fiscal stability," Hoyer said on the House floor before the vote.
Hoyer was joined by Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., the ranking member on the House Ways and Means Committee and a vocal supporter for the unemployment-insurance extension, in opposing the measure.
On his final night of votes in the House, Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., also opposed the measure. Watt was confirmed by the Senate on Tuesday to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency. A cadre of Democrats, including Hoyer and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, gathered on the House floor following the vote to bid Watt farewell.
The measure represents a small deal hashed out over months by Ryan and Murray, and it leaves many of the big questions about future spending—including entitlement and tax reform—for another day.
The House-passed budget bill sets top-line funding levels at $1.012 trillion for fiscal year 2014 and $1.014 trillion for fiscal year 2015, while providing $63 billion in sequester relief over two years, paid for through a combination of fees and mandatory savings. The deal will also reduce the deficit by $28 billion over the next 10 years, Ryan said.
The bill includes an amendment that will extend the "doc fix" formula, which is used to reimburse doctors under Medicare, for three months, while congressional negotiators continue to haggle over a long-term solution.
The House has no remaining votes before members head home for the holidays. Though the Senate will remain in session next week, the House will return on Jan. 7.
Billy House and Elahe Izadi contributed to this article.
This article appears in the December 13, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.