By JOHN T. BENNETT
WASHINGTON — The Senate on Wednesday approved a controversial bipartisan budget plan that erases over $30 billion in across-the-board spending cuts in 2014 and 2015. The former round of cuts would have kicked in next month.
Pentagon leaders support the plan, as do defense industry executives. They say while it does not completely undo the “meat ax” of sequestration, it does provide much-needed relief.
Nine Republicans joined 53 Democrats and two independents in supporting the deal, which passed 64-36.
Among those GOP “yays” were Senate Armed Services Committee members John McCain of Arizona and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, as well as former SASC member Susan Collins of Maine.
Passed last week by the House, the sweeping spending and deficit-reduction plan crafted by the chairs of the House and Senate budget committees, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, also will allow congressional appropriators to begin writing annual spending bills.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., told reporters Tuesday that the budget plan shows “we are inching toward regular order,” referring to the act of crafting and passing annual agency funding measures.
The much-anticipated Senate vote means congressional appropriators have regained power lost during the last four years, when political stagnation wrecked “regular order.”
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., this week said the Ryan-Murray plan is “not everyone’s desired outcome.” But she labeled it “a fair and necessary one.”
“This is the first time in several years that we’re actually going to vote on a bipartisan budget conference agreement, and I think it bodes well for future activity where we return to the due order of passing legislation,” the Senate’s top appropriator said.
Congressional sources say House and Senate appropriators — in the days after Ryan and Murray announced their plan — have been meeting to discuss the shape of a government-wide funding measure for the remainder of fiscal 2014. The current government-funding measure expires Jan. 15.
“We will meet that deadline,” Mikulski said. “It’s going to be tough, it’s going to be stringent, but we’re going to get the job done.”
Whether that vow becomes reality remains to be seen. But congressional Republicans are gearing up for a February fight over the nation’s debt ceiling, publicly stating their goal of extracting things like spending cuts or Obamacare changes from Democrats and the White House.
That means they could hold fire for that battle, meaning a government shutdown-averting bill would pass rather easily.
Even Senate Democrats who are pro-military, such as Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., supported the Ryan-Murray measure reluctantly.
The Levin group is disappointed the deal does not extend emergency unemployment benefits, while also cutting military veterans’ benefits to help pay for easing sequestration cuts.
Still, Levin said a few hours before the vote that the deal “represents progress.”
“Instead of government by crisis and hostage-taking, we have before us an agreement … in which neither side got all that it wanted, but both sides found acceptable middle ground,” Levin said. “That is not a common event around here these days.”
The chairman hailed the budget blueprint for “provid[ing] a way to offer some relief from the damaging impact of sequestration.”
Four retired US generals affiliated with the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center endorsed the deal on Tuesday evening.
“Although the bill is not perfect, its passage will bring stability and predictability to a budget process that has been without it for too long and will temporarily spare important defense and domestic priorities the worst of the sequester’s cuts, said the group, which includes retired Marine Gen. James Jones, a former national security adviser and commandant.
Gordon Adams, who ran national defense budgeting for the Clinton administration, said last week that “DoD should be ecstatic.”
“They are spared sequester, get budget stability, have all the flexibility they need, and have a holiday stocking stuffer nobody has bothered to mention: $80 billion in overseas contingency funds,” Adams said.
The Senate deliberation saw some top defense hawks — including GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire — oppose the deal over the veterans’ benefits changes.
Lawmakers already are scrambling to find another “pay for” to replace that provision — possibly early next year or during the appropriations process.
Other pro-defense Republicans also opposed the Ryan-Murray plan.
Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, slammed what he called “a bad budget bill that spends more, taxes more, and funds Obamacare, with no Republican amendments and no input from Senate Republicans.”
To right-wing GOP members, the plan is “more of the same D.C. deal-making that doesn’t fix our problems or help the people,” Cruz said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., facing a tough re-election fight, opposed the measure because it altered sequestration and the spending caps that accompanied it in the 2011 Budget Control Act.
“For the first time since the Korean War, government spending has declined for two years in a row as a result of the BCA,” McConnell said. “This was hard-won progress on the road to getting our nation’s fiscal house in order. We should not go back on that commitment.”
Here’s how the Ryan-Murray plan, Washington’s first budget resolution to pass both chambers since 2009, will work:
It will provide $63 billion in sequestration relief in 2014 and 2015, which would be split evenly among defense and non-defense discretionary accounts.
For the Defense Department, that comes to about $31 billion in sequester relief over the next two years.
The 2014 relief will total $45 billion, meaning the Pentagon gets back about $22.5 billion. In 2015, the relief will amount to around $18 billion total, with $9 billion for the Pentagon.
Ryan and Murray say it also will provide more than $20 billion in new deficit-reduction items.
“The sequester relief is fully offset by savings elsewhere in the budget,” Ryan’s House Budget Committee said in a statement. “The agreement includes dozens of specific deficit-reduction provisions, with mandatory savings and non-tax revenue totaling approximately $85 billion. The agreement would reduce the deficit by between $20 and $23 billion.”
The spending and deficit-reduction plan, Ryan says, targets the “auto-pilot side” of the federal budget while cutting less from the defense side.
One defense industry lobbyist calls the budget plan “the smallest of the small deals.”
The two-year spending plan likely puts to rest efforts to fashion a “grand bargain” fiscal deal that would replace all remaining nine years of sequestration cuts, lawmakers and analysts say.