Created: 12/10/2013 7:35 PM KSTP.com
(AP) WASHINGTON - Shedding gridlock, key members of Congress reached a modest budget agreement Tuesday to restore about $63 billion in automatic spending cuts from programs ranging from parks to the Pentagon.
The spending increases would be offset by a variety of increased fees and other provisions elsewhere in the budget totaling about $85 billion over a decade, leaving enough for a largely symbolic cut of about $23 billion in the nation’s debt, now $17 trillion and growing.
Federal workers, retired members of the military under age 62, airline travelers and health care providers who treat Medicare patients would bear much of the cost.
The budget deal was one of a few major measures left on Congress’ to-do list near the end of a bruising year that has produced a partial government shutdown, a flirtation with a first-ever federal default and gridlock on President Barack Obama’s agenda.
In a blow to Democrats, the agreement announced by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Paul Ryan, R-Wis., omitted an extension of benefits for workers unemployed longer than 26 weeks. The program expires on Dec. 28, when payments will be cut off for an estimated 1.3 million individuals.
Aides predicted bipartisan approval in both houses in the next several days, despite grumbling from liberals over the omission of the unemployment extension and even though tea party-aligned groups are pushing Republican conservatives to oppose the deal.
The White House quickly issued a statement from Obama praising the deal as a "good first step." He urged lawmakers to both parties to follow up and "actually pass a budget based on this agreement so I can sign it into law and our economy can continue growing and creating jobs without more Washington headwinds."
Congress’ two budget negotiators hailed their own work.
The deal "reduces the deficit by $23 billion and it does not raise taxes. It cuts spending in a smarter way" than the ones in effect, said Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who chairs the House Budget Committee.
Murray said the agreement "breaks through the recent dysfunction to prevent another government shutdown and roll back sequestration’s cuts to defense and domestic investments in a balanced way." Sequestration is Washington budget-speak for across-the-board cuts.
"It’s a good step in the right direction that can hopefully rebuild some trust and serve as a foundation for continued bipartisan work," Murray said.
The $63 billion in restoration of across-the-board spending reductions would be doled out across this budget year and the next, which ends on Sept. 30, 2015.
The offsetting $85 billion in deficit cuts would play out over a decade. They call for newly hired federal workers to make larger contributions to their own pensions, as well as an increase in a federal airport security fee that would add $5 to the cost of a typical roundtrip flight. The annual increase in military retirement benefits for those under age 62 would be slowed.
More savings would come from extending an existing 2 percent cut in payments to providers who treat Medicare patients.
Full details were unavailable pending their posting on budget committee websites.
Murray and Ryan had scarcely finished lauding their work when Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. and a potential 2016 presidential contender, announced he would oppose it.
"We need a government with less debt and an economy with more good paying jobs, and this budget fails to accomplish both goals," he said in a statement.
Even some of the bill’s supporters stopped short of describing it in glowing terms.
"While modest in scale, this agreement represents a positive step forward by replacing one-time spending cuts with permanent reforms to mandatory spending programs that will produce real, lasting savings," said Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Even before the deal was announced, conservative organizations were attacking the proposal as a betrayal of a hard-won 2011 agreement that reduced government spending and is counted as among the main accomplishments of tea party-aligned Republicans who came to power earlier the same year in the House.
Americans for Prosperity issued a midmorning statement saying that GOP lawmakers should uphold current spending levels. Otherwise, the group said, "congressional Republicans are joining liberal Democrats in breaking their word to the American people to finally begin reining in government overspending that has left us over $17 trillion in debt."
A day earlier, Heritage Action issued a similar broadside, saying it could not support a deal that "would increase spending in the near-term for promises of woefully inadequate long-term reductions." The group played an influential behind-the-scenes role earlier this fall in events that led to a partial government shutdown, supporting a strategy of refusing to provide needed funds for federal programs until the health care law known as "Obamacare" was defunded.
For their part, liberals were unhappy that the deal was likely to lack an extension of benefits for unemployed workers more than 26 weeks off the job.
The party’s leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, said at one point last week that her rank and file would insist on an extension for the unemployment program as a condition for supporting a budget deal.
The White House pointedly refused to support her position, and she later made additional comments that her staff characterized as a clarification.
Given the internal GOP divisions in the House, Boehner is likely to need Democratic votes to approve any deal by Ryan and Murray. It was not immediately clear how many Democratic lawmakers would support a plan that lacked an extension of unemployment benefits.
Some Democratic officials suggested a possible two-step solution. It included swift passage of any budget agreement that emerges, and then adding an extension of unemployment benefits to must-pass legislation early next year, perhaps a measure to reverse a looming cut in payments to doctors who treat Medicare patients.
The bipartisan push for a budget agreement stems from automatic cuts that are themselves the consequence of divided government’s ability to complete a sweeping deficit reduction package in 2011.
If left in place, the reductions would carve $91 billion in the current budget year from the day-to-day budgets of the Pentagon and domestic agencies when compared with spending limits set by the hard-fought 2011 budget agreement.
Support for a deal to ease the reductions is strongest in Congress among defense hawks in both houses and both parties who fear the impact on military readiness from a looming $20 billion cut in Pentagon spending.
The White House wanted a deal for a same reason, but also to ease the impact of automatic cuts on domestic programs from education to transportation to the national parks.
Associated Press writer Donna Cassata contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)