The Long Budget Nightmare Is Over

They grumbled a bit, but senators passed the compromise budget deal.

Members of the bipartisan budget conference Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) (L) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) discuss their initial meeting at the U.S. Capitol October 17, 2013 in Washington, DC. Congress voted last night to fund the federal budget and increase the nation's debt limit, ending a 16-day government shutdown. 
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Sarah Mimms and Michael Catalini
Sarah Mimms Michael Catalini
Dec. 18, 2013, 11:56 a.m.

They called it “small.” They called it “flawed.” But Con­gress passed a two-year budget deal, end­ing months of ac­ri­mony on Cap­it­ol Hill and en­sur­ing that the New Year will ring in with far less chance of a gov­ern­ment shut­down.

The Sen­ate passed the Bi­par­tis­an Budget Act of 2013 on a 64-36 vote Wed­nes­day, send­ing the bill to Pres­id­ent Obama’s desk, where he has said he’ll sign it.

The mod­est deal, cooked up by Sen­ate Budget Chair­wo­man Patty Mur­ray and House Budget Chair­man Paul Ry­an, sets top-line spend­ing levels for the gov­ern­ment through Oc­to­ber 2015, while re­du­cing se­quest­ra­tion cuts by $63 bil­lion over the next two years.

When asked how she felt after the bill she worked on for nine months fi­nally passed the Sen­ate, Mur­ray was char­ac­ter­ist­ic­ally brief. “I am good,” she said. When pressed for more in­form­a­tion, she ad­ded: “I’m glad that we have giv­en some con­tinu­ity back to the Amer­ic­an people.”

The bill sets top-line spend­ing for the re­mainder of fisc­al year 2014 at $1.012 tril­lion — the halfway point between the Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an budgets. Now that it has passed, con­gres­sion­al ap­pro­pri­at­ors can form­ally be­gin the task of fund­ing the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment.

Sen­ate Ap­pro­pri­ations Chair­wo­man Bar­bara Mikul­ski; her House coun­ter­part, Rep. Har­old Ro­gers; and their sub­com­mit­tee chairs have already be­gun dis­cus­sions and will be work­ing through the hol­i­days to craft a 12-bill om­ni­bus pack­age that Con­gress will ad­dress when law­makers re­turn in Janu­ary. The cur­rent fund­ing mech­an­ism, a con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion passed at the end of the Oc­to­ber shut­down, ex­pires Jan. 15.

But while the budget bill will al­low ap­pro­pri­at­ors to do their work and lend some cer­tainty to busi­nesses and fed­er­al agen­cies, it has drawn cri­ti­cism for fail­ing to ad­dress some of the na­tion’s long-term fisc­al is­sues, in­clud­ing en­ti­tle­ment spend­ing, the debt ceil­ing, and tax re­form.

Sen. Mike Jo­hanns, R-Neb., who is re­tir­ing next year, op­posed the budget bill Wed­nes­day, say­ing he wor­ries that while the deal has likely pre­ven­ted a shut­down in Janu­ary when the cur­rent con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion ex­pires, it has taken the pres­sure off Con­gress to deal with big-pic­ture items.

“The pres­sure is off now. Noth­ing will hap­pen for the next 24 months. No en­ti­tle­ment re­form. There’ll be no ser­i­ous budget dis­cus­sion, be­cause now we’re on auto-pi­lot for the next two years,” Jo­hanns said Wed­nes­day.

But in a Con­gress that has failed to ac­com­plish most of its ma­jor goals in 2013, even passing a small-ball budget agree­ment was deemed a suc­cess by sev­er­al law­makers.

“I think the ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans are sur­prised that there’s any agree­ment,” Sen. John Mc­Cain, R-Ar­iz., said on the Sen­ate floor while prais­ing Mur­ray Wed­nes­day.

Though the bill passed with a ma­jor­ity of the ma­jor­ity in both cham­bers, not every­one is happy with its con­tents. Demo­crats in both cham­bers have com­plained loudly that it does not ex­tend un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance be­ne­fits, which ex­pire on Dec. 28.

And sev­er­al sen­at­ors in both parties are con­cerned about a pro­vi­sion that will re­duce be­ne­fits for re­tired vet­er­ans. A cadre of law­makers are already push­ing le­gis­la­tion to elim­in­ate the pen­sion cuts, and the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee has vowed to take up the meas­ure next year.

“I have no doubt. We will re­peal it. OK? Without a doubt,” Mc­Cain, a mem­ber of the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, said Wed­nes­day. “I prom­ise.”

In the mean­time, Mur­ray and a bi­par­tis­an group of sen­at­ors plan to in­tro­duce a tech­nic­al fix that will ex­empt dis­abled vet­er­ans from the pen­sion changes. A vote on that change could come as soon as Thursday, and Mur­ray al­lies be­lieve that it could pass eas­ily un­der un­an­im­ous con­sent. The ques­tion is wheth­er the meas­ure will make it to the floor.

“We’re run­ning in­to the same prob­lem that every­body is right now, which is that a there’s a cer­tain num­ber of Re­pub­lic­ans that are in­tent on block­ing everything,” a Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic aide said.

That meas­ure has the sup­port of Ry­an, as well as oth­er House Re­pub­lic­ans, ac­cord­ing to the aide. However, it will not be paid for, adding $600 mil­lion to the budget’s price tag.

Re­pub­lic­ans, mean­while, are push­ing to end the cuts for all re­tired mil­it­ary per­son­nel. One pro­pos­al from Sens. Ro­ger Wick­er, R-Miss., and Lind­sey Gra­ham, R-S.C., among oth­ers, would pay for it through a pro­vi­sion in Obama’s 2014 budget pro­pos­al that would tight­en the proof-of-eli­gib­il­ity re­quire­ments for in­di­vidu­als re­ceiv­ing the Earned In­come Tax Cred­it.

“What I’m hear­ing around here is a lot of agree­ment that it needs to get fixed,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. “My hope is that it will hap­pen pretty quickly, that we’ll get to­geth­er on a bi­par­tis­an basis with the House.”

Des­pite Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id’s pre­dic­tions this week that the deal would ush­er in a new era of bi­par­tis­an­ship among sen­at­ors, Re­pub­lic­ans are ad­opt­ing a starkly dif­fer­ent view, frus­trated that they can­not of­fer amend­ments on most le­gis­la­tion and can no longer block pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ees since Demo­crats in­voked the so-called nuc­le­ar op­tion.

“The fact that this dis­crim­in­at­ory cut in pen­sions for act­ive duty mil­it­ary can’t be fixed be­cause Sen­at­or Re­id won’t al­low any amend­ments to something that would en­joy broad bi­par­tis­an sup­port says a lot about how broken the Sen­ate is,” said Minor­ity Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas. “I think the Sen­ate is as di­vided as it has ever been, and it’s thanks to Sen­at­or Re­id.”

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