Congress declared a holiday truce in a years-long fight over the federal budget, sending President Obama a spending blueprint Wednesday that is designed to ease sharp spending cuts and keep government operations funded through 2015.
Senators voted 64 to 36 to approve the bipartisan budget agreement Wednesday afternoon. Nine Republicans joined with 55 Democrats to approve the legislation, which Obama is expected to sign before departing this weekend for his Christmas vacation in Hawaii. The Republican senators who joined with Democrats were Saxby Chambliss (GA), Susan Collins (Maine), Orrin G. Hatch (UT), John Hoeven (ND), Johnny Isakson (GA), Ronald Johnson (WI), John McCain (AZ), Lisa Murkowski (AL) and Rob Portman (OH). Three Republicans who voted to end formal debate on the budget on Tuesday voted Wednesday against the final budget agreement: Sens. Lamar Alexander (TN), Roy Blunt (MO) and Jeff Flake (AZ).
Approval of the measure comes about four weeks before a Jan. 15 deadline but does not erase the threat of a government shutdown. The budget agreement merely sets the parameters of federal spending levels; it leaves work on the details up to the House and Senate appropriations committees.
Top appropriators plan to begin meeting Thursday, according to aides familiar with their plans. On Wednesday, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, seemed optimistic that lawmakers will reach a deal. Walking into her committee’s ornate meeting room in the U.S. Capitol, she said, “I’m like a Raven,” a reference to Baltimore’s National Football League team. “It’s the fourth quarter, there are seconds to go on the clock, and I’m ready to kick a 61-yard field goal.”
The budget agreement was brokered on the heels of a 16-day government shutdown in October that riled taxpayers and sent approval ratings for congressional Republicans plummeting in public opinion polls. After nearly two months of talks, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) last week announced the deal, which would ease the impact of the sequester without raising taxes or cutting popular retirement programs.
Although the agreement sailed through the House on a landslide vote, problems quickly cropped up in the Senate. Potential GOP presidential hopefuls, including Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.), opposed it because it would increase spending now in exchange for the promise of budget cuts later.
And concerns about cuts to military pensions included in the agreement have taken center stage. The deal calls for $85 billion in total savings over the next decade, including $6 billion from reducing cost-of-living adjustments by 1 percent for military retirees younger than 62.
According to House budget aides, the proposal would reduce lifetime retirement pay by about 6 percent for a man who enlisted at age 18 and retired at age 38 as a sergeant first class in the Army — leaving him with about $1.626 million in lifetime retirement pay instead of $1.734 million.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) said Wednesday that the military pension change is “a troubling provision” and vowed that his committee would review the changes next year. Others, including Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), called the provision “a deal breaker” and urged her colleagues to find an alternative. “We could quickly find $6 billion that would not be taken from the backs of our men and women in uniform,” she said.
That prompted her home-state colleague, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D), to propose replacing the pension cuts by closing a variety of corporate tax loopholes — an idea Republicans roundly ignored.
But John McCain (R-AZ), one of the few senators who served in the military, dismissed the outcry, noting that even high-ranking Pentagon officials have acknowledged the need to rein in the cost of military benefits, from pensions awarded after only 20 years of service to the military health program known as TriCare.
A coalition of retired senior military officers backed up McCain’s argument Tuesday, arguing that the changes will help control ballooning military personnel costs that have doubled since 2000, despite a 10 percent reduction in the active-duty force.
This article originally appeared in The Washington Post.
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