WASHINGTON - After a sweeping vote by conservative Republicans controlling the House and President Barack Obama's Democratic allies, a bipartisan budget pact is in the hands of the Senate, where it will encounter stronger but probably futile resistance from Republicans.
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 domestic agencies next month. Supporters of the measure easily beat back attacks on it from conservative organizations that sometimes raise money by stoking conflict within the Republican Party.
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, where Obama's allies appear set to clear it next week for his signature.
Senate Democrats promise 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 GOP leaders to knuckle under and extend aid averaging under $300 a week to people who've been out of work longer than six months.
The bipartisan bill breezed through the House on a 332-94 vote, with lopsided majorities of Republicans and Democrats alike voting in favor.
Thursday's vote was a big win for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who earlier in the day lobbed another salvo at conservative interest groups that routinely attack Republicans for supporting legislation they deem not conservative enough. But that is what Republicans can achieve given the realities of a divided Washington.
"If you're for reducing the budget deficit, then you should be voting for this bill. If you're for cutting the size of government, you should be supporting this budget," Boehner said. "These are the things that I came here to do, and this budget does them. Is it perfect? Does it go far enough? No, not at all. I think it's going to take a lot more work to get our arms around our debt and our deficits."
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 $1 trillion or so in automatic cuts slamming the Pentagon, domestic agencies and Medicare providers through 2021 but eases an especially harsh set of cuts for 2014 and 2015.
Nobody is claiming the pact worked out between high-profile Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican Party's vice presidential nominee last year, and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., a 21-year veteran of the Senate, is perfect. It eases $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 don't accumulate until 2022-2023. Deficits would increase by $23.2 billion in 2014 and by $18.2 billion the year after that.
But 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 won't 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 wasn't 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.
Thursday marked the second consecutive day that Boehner went on the attack against conservative groups like Heritage Action, the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund, which often raise money by attacking the GOP establishment.
"They pushed us into the fight to defund Obamacare and shut down the government," Boehner said. "That wasn't exactly the strategy I had in mind. But if you recall, the day before the government reopened, one of these groups stood up and said, `Well, we never really thought it would work.'
"Are you kidding me!"