House Republicans signal support for budget deal
Washington • House Republicans signaled support Wednesday for a budget deal worked out a day earlier, a plan narrowly drawn but promoted as a way to stabilize Congress' erratic fiscal efforts, avert another government shutdown and mute some of the partisan rancor that has damaged Americans' attitudes about their lawmakers.
"There's a lot to like about it," said one GOP congressman, John Fleming of Louisiana, as he emerged from a closed-door caucus meeting.
The plan provides $63 billion in short-term relief from painful automatic spending cuts and counters that with $85 billion in spending cuts and new fees over the coming decade. Congress is expected to enact the savings measure this year and follow up with a huge spending bill next month.
GOP critics faulted the measure for increasing deficits for the next three years and complained that much of its deficit savings would come near the end of its 10-year projections. An estimate by the Congressional Budget Office says that the deal would add $23 billion to the deficit for the ongoing 2014 budget year and add another $22.3 billion over the 2015-16 timeframe.
Fully $68 billion, or 80 percent, of the plan's $85 billion in spending cuts and fees would come in the pact's final three years. Just $11 billion would accrue in the first three years, an amount that's far exceeded by new spending permitted this year and next.
Supporters insisted the plan, while imperfect, is at least a step in the right direction.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said most Republicans would back the deal worked out by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray and applauded by the White House.
"A lot of folks will probably vote for it even though they would rather not support this type of legislation, but we have to get the spending issue completed so that there is some consistency in the future," Miller said.
The White House issued a statement Wednesday praising the bill for "critical investments in areas such as education, infrastructure, and scientific research, while keeping the Nation on the path to long-term deficit reduction."
The House plans to vote on the measure Thursday.
There was some grumbling from both liberals and conservatives since the plan wouldn't solve long-term tax and spending issues, and ignores expiring unemployment benefits.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a potential 2016 presidential candidate, announced his opposition, saying that "undoing tens of billions of this modest spending restraint is shameful and must be opposed."
But House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, dismissed criticism from groups such as Heritage Action, which raise money as they disparage Republicans for being insufficiently conservative.
"They're using our members and they're using the American people to further their own goals," Boehner said Wednesday. "This is ridiculous."
But many House Democrats were less than enthusiastic, too.
"Stay tuned," said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., when asked about whether Democrats would support the bill.
The agreement, among other things, seeks to restore $63 billion in automatic spending cuts affecting programs ranging from parks to the Pentagon. The deal to ease those cuts for two years is aimed less at chipping away at the nation's $17 trillion national debt than it is at trying to help a dysfunctional Capitol stop lurching from crisis to crisis. It would set the stage for action in January on a $1 trillion-plus spending bill for the budget year that began in October.
The measure unveiled by Ryan and Murray blends $85 billion in spending cuts and revenue from new and extended fees but no taxes or cuts to Medicare beneficiaries to replace a significant amount of the mandated cuts to agency budgets over the coming two years.
The package would raise the Transportation Security Administration fee on a typical nonstop, round-trip airline ticket from $5 to $10; require newly hired federal workers to contribute 1.3 percentage points more of their salaries toward their pensions; and trim cost-of-living adjustments to the pensions of military retirees under the age of 62. Hospitals and other health care providers would have to absorb two additional years of a 2-percentage-point cut in their Medicare reimbursements.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said the measure will serve as a vehicle to delay a 24 percent cut in Medicare reimbursements to physicians that would otherwise take effect Jan. 1 The idea is to buy negotiators more time to try to permanently fix the problem, which dates to miscalculations enacted in a 1997 budget law.
The plan doesn't attempt to resuscitate earlier attempts at an accommodation that would have traded tax hikes for structural curbs to ever-growing benefit programs like Medicare and Social Security. But it would at least bring some stability on the budget to an institution Congress whose approval ratings are in the gutter.
"Our deal puts jobs and economic growth first by rolling back ... harmful cuts to education, medical research, infrastructure investments and defense jobs for the next two years," Murray said.
The measure won an immediate endorsement from President Barack Obama, who called it a step in the right direction.
The budget deal was one of a few major measures left on Congress' to-do list near the end of a bruising year that has produced a partial government shutdown, a flirtation with a first-ever federal default and gridlock on Obama's agenda.
In a blow to Democrats, the agreement omits an extension of benefits for workers unemployed longer than 26 weeks. The program expires Dec. 28, when payments will be cut off for an estimated 1.3 million individuals. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has agreed to stage a test vote on the measure this year, but it's not clear whether he'll get enough GOP support to advance it.
Aides predicted bipartisan approval in both houses in the next several days, despite grumbling from liberals over the omission of the unemployment extension and pressure from tea party-aligned groups that are pushing Republican conservatives to oppose the deal.
The agreement would increase the cap on so-called discretionary spending from the $967 billion mandated by Washington's failure to follow up a 2011 budget agreement with additional deficit cuts. The cap would rise to $1.012 trillion for the ongoing 2014 budget year and up to $1.014 trillion for 2015.
The relief to the Pentagon is relatively modest since the agency started out facing a cut of $20 billion below the harsh cuts it faced in 2013; the agreement replaces those cuts but doesn't bring the military's budget much above 2013 levels.
Even before the deal was announced, conservative organizations were attacking the proposal as a betrayal of a 2011 agreement that reduced government spending and is counted as among the main accomplishments of tea party-aligned Republicans who came to power earlier the same year in the House.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., issued a statement opposing the measure and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was seen as likely to oppose it as well. But key Democrats lined up behind Obama, especially after Ryan eased demands on making federal workers contribute more to their pensions.
Associated Press writers Henry C. Jackson, Alan Fram and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.