Congress’ bipartisan budget deal appeared headed for passage Thursday in the House of Representatives, despite protests from angry conservatives and skepticism from wary Democrats.
Debate began around 12:30 p.m., and a final vote was expected in early evening.
Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga., kicked off the debate by citing the bipartisan nature of the agreement--and the modest reach of the deal.
"We could not find the big budget deal and for that I am deeply sorry," he said. "What they did find were those elements of an agreement that could be found."
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House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, rejected criticism of the deal from conservative groups as uninformed and self-serving.
“They’re using our members and they’re using the American people for their own goals,” Boehner said Wednesday. “This is ridiculous. Listen, if you’re for more deficit reduction, you’re for this agreement.”
The deal also got a boost from the White House, as the Obama administration issued a statement of support.
“The legislation would allow for critical investments in areas such as education, infrastructure and scientific research, while keeping the nation on the path to long-term deficit reduction,” said a statement from the Office of Management and Budget. “The legislation includes targeted fee increases and spending cuts designed in a way that does not hurt the nation’s economy or the federal government’s commitments to seniors.”
Most lawmakers saw the agreement as a modest but significant step in easing the political tension that has gripped the Capitol for years.
If no budget is adopted before Jan. 15, about a third of the government runs out of money, meaning another partial shutdown. The Oct. 1-16 shutdown sent Congress’ already dismal approval ratings reeling.
The new deal would fund the government through the rest of this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, and fiscal 2015 as well. It would spend $45 billion more this year than scheduled spending cuts called the sequester would have allowed, and $18 billion more next year. Half the extra spending will be on defense programs, half on domestic items.
The agreement aims to offset the increased spending with $85 billion in new revenue over 10 years. The biggest items include $12 billion from higher airline passenger security fees and a nearly equal amount in changes in federal employee pension contributions.
People hired after Dec. 31 typically would see contributions increase, while younger military retirees would get lower cost-of-living increases.
Over 10 years, the new plan would cut projected deficits by $20 billion to $23 billion.
Democrats were largely unenthusiastic, mainly because of the federal pension changes and the absence of any extension of unemployment insurance benefits, which expire soon.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said colleagues familiar with budget issues would review the details.
“I don’t know where that will come down because, as you know, our budget that (we) were putting forth was quite different. It was about growth,” she said after meeting with House Democrats.
Democrats remain concerned about extending emergency unemployment benefits, which is unaddressed in the agreement. Those benefits expire Dec. 28 and could affect about 1.3 million people.
Democrats want an extension. Many Republicans are balking, saying that the economy is rebounding and that extending benefits further discourages people from seeking work.
Democrats emphasized their displeasure in a letter to Boehner Wednesday, urging him not to adjourn the House until it takes up a measure to extend emergency unemployment benefits for one year. The letter was signed by 166 House Democrats.
“I’m deeply disturbed that this deal does not include an extension of unemployment insurance,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a co-signer of the letter, said Wednesday. “Congress should not leave town for the holidays until we have extended these vital benefits.”
Boehner would not rule out an extension, but he said he wanted to see a plan from the White House. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he would push for a bill after Jan. 1.
Democrats were also miffed that Republicans back a small three-month increase in Medicare payments to physicians, called the “doc fix,” while not taking care of jobless people. Without the Medicare change, payment rates to doctors could be cut 24 percent Jan. 1.
Reps. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Sander Levin, D-Mich., said they’ve introduced a measure to extend jobless benefits for three months. The two Democrats warned that doing one without the other could put the overall budget agreement in jeopardy.
“This does now add a new dynamic that could upset the apple cart, put at risk the budget agreement,” said Van Hollen, who supports the doc fix.
Democrats are widely expected to back the deal, as it’s backed by Reid and Obama and was crafted partly by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., regarded highly by liberals.
The House is seeing a similar dynamic with conservatives, who blasted the agreement. Heritage Action, the political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, called the deal a key 2013 vote and urged lawmakers to vote against it.
“This is a significant achievement for President Obama, who believes that government spending is a panacea to America’s economic woes,” Heritage Action said of the deal. “By increasing spending, increasing fees and offering up another round of promises waiting to be broken, the deal represents a step backwards.”
The support of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the deal’s other architect, is considered crucial. He’s viewed in conservative circles as a budget hero.
“Look, our budget that we passed here in the House, the Republican budget, represents our ultimate goal and our ultimate vision: balance the budget, pay off the debt,” Ryan said after a meeting of House Republicans.
“But we understand in this divided government we’re not going to get everything we want.”