Published: December 17, 2013 194 Comments
WASHINGTON — A bipartisan tax-and-spending plan designed to bring some normalcy to Congress’s budgeting after three years of chaos cleared its final hurdle on Tuesday when 67 senators voted to end debate on the measure and bring it to a final vote before it goes to President Obama for his signature.
The 67-33 vote easily surpassed the 60-vote threshold to break a filibuster and made way for final passage with a simple, 51-vote majority, likely on Wednesday. Republican support was surprisingly strong after days of uncertainty fueled by political posturing and Tea Party opposition.
The budget plan would restore $63 billion to defense and domestic programs in fiscal 2014 and 2015 from the levels they would have received if automatic, across-the-board spending cuts were to resume in January. Over 10 years, the plan would decrease cumulative deficits slightly by trimming military and federal worker pensions, extending a 2 percent cut to Medicare providers into next decade and making other changes, like ending federal research for some fossil-fuel discovery efforts.
Even its chief architects, Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee, and Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, called the agreement a modest first step toward addressing the budget deficit in a more rational way. But its very modesty showed how difficult deficit reduction will be.
Veterans’ groups and their advocates in the Senate were furious that the bill saves $6 billion by trimming cost-of-living increases by one percentage point for working-age military retirees, even though such retirees would receive a one-time increase in benefits at 62 so that payments during retirement would be the same as if there had been no cuts.
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, acknowledged that change had to come when military pay and benefits soak up 56 percent of the Defense Department’s budget. Still, he was joined by Senator Kelly Ayotte, Republican of New Hampshire, and Senator Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi, in vowing to reverse the cut.
“The truth of the matter is, we’re probably going to lose this fight, but we’re going to win this war,” he said just before the morning vote.
The budget deal sailed through the House last week but had run into a toxic mix of re-election politics, presidential positioning and hurt feelings in the Senate.
Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, held a rare session on Sunday to formally file to end debate on the measure. Business groups like the Business Roundtable, which represents the chief executive officers of the nation’s largest corporations, pressed Senate Republicans to get on board, countering conservative pressure groups that oppose the deal.
Mr. Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, and Speaker John A. Boehner worked behind the scenes to win support from Senate Republicans.
Under the budget deal, spending on defense and nondefense programs would rise from the $967 billion slated for this fiscal year to $1.012 trillion, mitigating the impact of across-the-board spending cuts and allowing lawmakers to draft detailed spending plans for the first time in several years. Spending in fiscal 2015, which begins Oct. 1, would rise from $995 billion to $1.014 trillion. Though total spending would rise $63 billion over 10 years, the measure would trim the deficit slightly.
Opponents had initially seized on the notion that immediate spending increases would be more than offset by savings spaced over 10 years, with much of those savings in 2021 and 2022. But some Senate Republicans have now focused their opposition on $6 billion in cuts to military pensions — reductions that have incensed some veterans’ groups.
Mr. Ryan has defended the cuts as extremely modest.
Other Republicans in the Senate are angry that the deal does away with a parliamentary procedure, called a point of order, that requires 60 senators to vote for legislation that breaks through spending caps established in the 2011 Budget Control Act or pays for measures that break those caps with new taxes and fees. The measure leaves intact the 60-vote requirement to proceed to a final vote on legislation.
“The legislation should help break a terrible cycle of governing by crisis,” Mr. Reid said Monday, urging final approval of the plan as early as Wednesday.