House exhales after passing compromise budget

The U.S. Capitol
The U.S. Capitol McClatchy

The House of Representatives on Thursday approved by a vote of 332-94 a modest bipartisan plan to spend more on both defense and domestic programs for the next two years, an agreement aimed at avoiding government shutdowns and easing automatic spending cuts.

Conservatives fumed that the plan didn’t take the kind of bold steps to reduce spending and deficits they have long sought. Democrats were not pleased that the package didn’t tackle emergency unemployment benefits, which expire Dec. 28.

But momentum for the agreement was too strong. The House is scheduled to leave for the year Friday, and heads home with its lowest average annual Gallup poll approval rating since the question was first asked 39 years ago. A key reason is the public’s disdain for the gridlock that’s plagued Congress all year. With Thursday’s vote, lawmakers can now point to some sense of comity.

“We could not find the big budget deal and for that I am deeply sorry,” said Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga. “What they did find were those elements of an agreement that could be found.”

The feeling was bipartisan. “We’re unhappy, we’re very unhappy about it, but not enough to say therefore we’re going to make matters worse by not having an agreement,” said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California.

The bill was backed by a coalition of Washington leaders unseen in recent years. President Barack Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, all rallied behind the measure.

It still faces hurdles in the Senate, where conservative members have vowed a fight. The Senate is expected to consider the measure next week.

In the House Thursday, Boehner was notably emphatic that he was tired of conservative interest groups trying to pressure lawmakers into a “no” vote. The speaker has been wary of criticizing such groups, but not Thursday.

“I think they’re misleading their followers,” the Ohio Republican told a news conference. “I think they’re pushing our members in places where they don’t want to be. And frankly, I just think that they’ve lost all credibility.”

“You know, they pushed into this fight to defund ‘Obamacare’ and to shut down the government,” he said. “Most of you know, my members know, that wasn’t exactly the strategy that I had in mind.”

Conservatives wouldn’t relent.

“It’s one thing to say it’s a crap sandwich and you’ve got to eat it; it’s another thing to say it’s the best thing ever, you’ll love it,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan.

If no budget is adopted before Jan. 15, much of the government runs out of money, as it did Oct. 1-16.

The bipartisan agreement would fund the government through the rest of fiscal 2014, which ends Sept. 30, and fiscal 2015. It eases the automatic spending cuts, or sequester, by spending an additional $63 billion more over the next two fiscal years. Most of that – $45 billion – would be spent this fiscal year, and the rest next year.

Half will go to defense programs and half to domestic items.

The spending would be offset with $85 billion in new revenue over the next decade. Among the biggest revenue raisers are $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 would typically see contributions increase, while younger military retirees would get lower cost-of-living increases.

House Democrats relentlessly tried Thursday to push the extension of unemployment benefits. They tried to extract a promise that Boehner would allow a House vote to extend the benefits. A Boehner aide said that such a vote isn’t likely.

“I believe this is a moral issue that has little to do with theater at all,” said Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn. “Ask somebody who doesn’t know how they’re going to pay their bills when unemployment runs out. If the best thing you can say about this budget is it could be worse, then that’s not saying much of anything.”

Many House conservatives were unhappy, too, calling the agreement a retreat on modest budget-cutting gains they made through sequestration. They took umbrage at Boehner’s sharp criticism of outside conservative groups that have blasted the budget agreement.

“This is not a conservative plan,” said Huelskamp. “It’s an abdication of what minor victories the speaker himself claimed we had, which was the sequester, and this is an abandonment of that promise.”

The measure got support from some influential business groups.

“The budget deal wasn’t a grand bargain,” said Martin Regalia, chief economist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “But it does mean that if Congress passes it . . . it will avoid another government shutdown, another fight over the debt ceiling, and the threat over the debt ceiling and things like that, and that’s a positive.”

Kevin G. Hall of the Washington Bureau contributed to this story.

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