WASHINGTON—The U.S. Senate on Wednesday night approved a bipartisan budget deal, putting it only the president’s signature away from becoming law.
The Senate passed the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 on a 64-36 vote with nine Republicans siding with 55 Democrats in favor of the bill. Congress will still have to pass appropriations bills before Jan. 15, but the deal establishes a budgetary framework to avert another government shutdown and fund the government for the next two years.
President Barack Obama is expected to sign the legislation, which includes $63 billion in “sequester relief” and spreads $85 billion in new cuts over the life of the 10-year plan.
“If we didn’t get a deal, we would have faced another continuing resolution that would have locked in the automatic cuts—or worse, a potential government shutdown in just a few short weeks,” said Patty Murray, D-Wash., the Senate Budget Committee chair who brokered the deal with her House counterpart, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. “[N]either side got everything they wanted, and both sides had to give a bit.”
The compromise increases discretionary spending by $45 billion (to more than $1.012 trillion) in 2014 and $18 billion (to $1.014 trillion) in 2015. The increase prompted strong opposition from most conservative groups and lawmakers, who argued the $23 billion in future net debt reduction will never materialize.
“Today’s budget vote replaces bipartisan spending limits with gimmicks and empty promises,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity. “The American people were promised reasonable spending cuts but are now forced to accept billions more in immediate government spending based on the shaky promise that members of Congress won’t once again go back on their word a decade from now.”
But some conservative lawmakers insist the law contains more good provisions than bad. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, released a chart touting the long-term benefits of pension reform in the bill. New federal employees will pay an additional 1.3 percent into their pension plans, which Issa said will save almost $20 billion during the second decade of the plan.
About $6 billion of the projected $85 billion in 10-year savings comes from trimming pensions for current and future military retirees, a plan that emerged this week as possibly the most despised part of the legislation. The bill cuts 1 percent from the cost of living increase for retirees under age 62, which would cost a retiring Army sergeant first class $3,700 per year, according to the Military Officers Association of America. The cut is aimed at veterans still able to work in other careers, but disabled veterans would also have their pensions slashed.
“I suspect most members of the House didn't realize that,” an indignant Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said Wednesday on the Senate floor, alluding to the 169 Republicans who voted in favor of the budget deal last week.
Sessions and Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., who were both part of the 29-member Murray-Ryan budget committee, tried to file an amendment Tuesday night to restore the reductions in military pensions, but the body voted along party lines to allow Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to prohibit amendments from being considered.
Wicker said the bill increases “federal spending on the backs of our retired and active duty troops. Congress should not change the rules in the middle of the game for those who have chosen to serve our nation in the military.”
There’s irony in the military retiree cuts: Republicans didn’t have the collective will to keep sequestration in place mostly because of the cuts in military spending. The Military Coalition, a collection of veterans groups, told senators in a letter it appreciates the effort to ease the effects of sequestration on the defense budget, but expressed “grave concern and strong objection” to the proposal that “seeks to penalize current and future military members who have served our nation for over 20 years.”
While Wednesday’s compromise avoids a government shutdown over the budget, it doesn’t mean the fiscal fights are finished. The government is slated to reach its borrowing limit in February, so lawmakers will have to come to another agreement in the next two months. With conservatives unhappy with the budget deal, expect them to push House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to demand big concessions from Democrats in exchange for raising the debt ceiling again.