The budget deal the Senate is likely to approve Wednesday will mean an easing of the automatic spending cuts, or sequester, but it’s also exposing a deep political rift among Republicans.
The deal passed a crucial test Tuesday, when the Senate agreed 67-33 to limit debate. Twelve Republicans – a surprisingly big number – joined 53 Democrats and two independents to back the cutoff. Fifty-one votes will be needed for final passage.
The deal will increase discretionary spending, or items Congress and the White House can largely control, above the sequester amount by about $63 billion over the next two fiscal years. It also raises $85 billion in new revenue, largely through increases in fees, federal employees’ retirement contributions and other strategies, over 10 years.
The plan would spend at a rate of $1.012 trillion for this fiscal year and slightly more next year. Current funding is set at an annualized rate of $986 billion.
Many Republican conservatives are furious about the change. They were proud of the 2011 agreement that created the automatic cuts and are convinced voters will punish lawmakers who voted to break them.
Republicans voting against cutting off debate were often those facing re-election next year, notably lawmakers with nomination challenges from the party’s more conservative wing. Also voting no were three senators often mentioned as possible 2016 presidential candidates.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., faces a primary battle against businessman Matt Bevin, a favorite of diehard conservatives. McConnell, who had a perfect rating last year on conservative votes from the American Conservative Union, has nonetheless been under fire from some interest groups for his willingness to make deals that ease budget crises.
Not this time.
“While I appreciate the challenges that House and Senate negotiators faced in crafting the budgetary guidelines, I cannot support the legislation they have agreed to,” said McConnell. “I remain convinced that Congress should continue to adhere to the fiscal restraints it set.”
Also joining the opponents was Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., a Senate veteran with a reputation for evenhandedness. Cochran faces a tough nomination challenge from state Sen. Chris McDaniel.
McDaniel quickly sent out a statement after the deal was announced last week, blasting it as “a complete abdication of Washington’s governing responsibility.” The Tea Party Express embraced his comments and used his remarks to urge supporters to contribute to the group.
“We loved the fact that he was one of the first to send out a press release and jump all over the bad budget deal that was reached by the current D.C. crowd,” the group said. “He was not scared to take on the D.C. establishment head on _ something this country desperately needs!”
Cochran was gentler in his comments than McDaniel, but he made it clear he disliked the deal. He called it “a good-faith effort to negotiate an agreement that would return some sense of order and transparency to the federal budget process.”
He said he appreciated “the difficulty of that effort, but (I) don’t believe the agreement does enough about the most serious structural budget problems facing our nation.”
Other Republican senators facing potentially stiff nominating challenges also voted no, including Sens. John Cornyn of Texas, Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Pat Roberts of Kansas.
Two of the 12 Republicans voting “yes” are up for re-election next year. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is from a state where staunch conservatism is less popular. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee faces a primary challenge, but his state has also shown a willingness to back center-right candidates.
The three potential Republican White House hopefuls – Kentucky’s Rand Paul, Florida’s Marco Rubio and Texas’ Ted Cruz – were all adamant no votes.
The deal, said Rubio, “continues Washington’s irresponsible budgeting decisions by spending more money than the government takes in.”
Democrats were not entirely pleased with the agreement. They were upset that it contains no provision to extend emergency unemployment benefits, which are set to expire Dec. 28. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the Senate could take up the matter next month.
The key reason for the big vote was many lawmakers’ desire to show they could finally compromise.
“Neither side got everything they wanted and both of us had to give a bit,” Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., told colleagues. “We have spent far too long here scrambling to fix artificial crises instead of working together to solve the big problems we all know we want to address.”