A budget pact now in the hands of the US Senate will encounter strong, but probably futile resistance from Republicans after a sweeping vote in the House saw the majority Republicans and US President Barack Obama’s Democratic allies reach a rare bipartisan agreement.
The modest package passed by the House on Thursday would ease the harshest effects of another round of automatic spending cuts set to hit the Pentagon and US agencies next month.
Supporters of the measure easily beat back attacks on it from conservative organizations. At the same time, Democrats who were upset that the bill would not extend jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed suppressed their doubts to advance the measure to the Democratic-led Senate, which appears set to clear it next week for Obama’s signature.
Senate Democrats promised to force a vote on extending unemployment benefits when the chamber reconvenes next year. They hope that political pressure after 1.3 million people lose their benefits on Dec. 28 will force Republican leaders to extend aid averaging under US$300 a week to people who have been out of work for more than six months.
The bipartisan bill breezed through the House on a 332-94 vote, with lopsided majorities of Republicans and Democrats voting in its favor.
Thursday’s vote was a big win for Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who earlier in the day criticized conservative interest groups that routinely attack Republicans for supporting legislation they consider not conservative enough.
The measure would bring a temporary cease-fire to the budget wars that have gridlocked Washington for much of the three years since Republicans reclaimed control of the House. It leaves in place the bulk of the US$1 trillion or so in automatic funding cuts to the Pentagon, other agencies and Medicare providers through 2021, but eases an especially harsh set of cuts for next year and 2015.
Nobody is claiming the pact worked out between high-profile Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, the Republican Party’s vice presidential nominee last year, and Democratic Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray is perfect. It eases US$63 billion in scheduled spending cuts over the next two years and replaces them with longer-term savings measured over 10 years, many of which do not accumulate until 2022 or 2023. Deficits would increase by US$23.2 billion next year and by US$18.2 billion the year after that.
The deal would put a dysfunctional Washington on track to prevent unappealingly tough cuts to military readiness and weapons, as well as continued cuts to programs cherished by Democrats and Republicans alike, including health research, school aid, FBI salaries and border security.
The cuts would be replaced with money from, among other things, higher airline security fees, curbs on the pension benefits of new federal workers or working-age military retirees, and premium increases on companies whose pension plans are insured by the federal government.
The Ryan-Murray pact uses a combination of mostly low-profile cuts and new fee revenues, much of which will not occur until after the turn of the next decade, to ease cuts mandated by the inability of official Washington to follow up a 2011 budget pact with additional deficit cuts.
Those cuts were intended to be so fearsome that they would force the capital’s warring factions to make budget peace. Instead, after the first-year impact of so-called sequestration was not as bad as advertised, many Republicans have come to embrace them. The Ryan-Murray deal recognizes that the second year of the automatic cuts would be worse than the first, especially for the Pentagon, and seeks to ease their pain.