House GOP leaders defend new budget deal

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) said at a news conference Wednesday that the budget deal he hammered out with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) takes a step in the right direction. (Associated Press)
December 11, 2013

House Republican leaders defended a new bipartisan budget agreement Wednesday, as some conservatives and liberals voiced objections to an $85 billion compromise that would fund federal agencies through the fall of 2015.

The deal, announced late Tuesday by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-Wash.), immediately came under criticism from conservatives on and off Capitol Hill, with some outside groups such as the influential Heritage Action for America announcing their opposition a full day in advance.

The agreement is aimed at averting another government shutdown and ending the cycle of crisis that has paralyzed Washington for much of the past three years.

Ryan and Murray rushed to file legislation by midnight Tuesday to clear the way for a House vote as soon as Thursday, one day before the chamber is set to adjourn for the year. The Senate would vote before leaving town next week.

After a briefing for the GOP rank and file behind closed doors Wednesday morning, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) blasted groups that he said came out in opposition to the deal before having seen what was in it.

Senate Budget Committee chairman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) announced that they have reached a bipartisan agreement to prevent a government shutdown in January. (The Washington Post)

“They’re using our members, and they’re using the American people for their own goals,” Boehner told reporters. “This is ridiculous. If you’re for more deficit reduction, you’re for this agreement.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) congratulated Ryan on “the hard work behind trying to get a deal in this divided government we’re in.” He said it accomplishes deficit reduction and permanent federal pension reform, “and it doesn’t raise taxes.” He added that the deal was consistent with Republican efforts to replace the mandatory budget cuts known as the sequester with “permanent savings that make a lot more sense.”

Ryan said that $63 billion in “sequester relief” is more than offset with $85 billion in savings, resulting in significant deficit reduction.

“We understand that in this divided government, we’re not going to get everything we want,” Ryan said. The deal is a “step” toward GOP goals, and “we feel very good about where we are with our members,” he said. “If we can get a step in the right direction, we’re going to take that step, and that’s why we’re doing this.”

House Republicans leaving the closed-door meeting expressed mixed, but generally positive, reactions to the agreement Ryan presented.

Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) said he would support the agreement, which “provides a level of predictability, stability and certainty about how we go about governing.”

Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.) called the deal “imperfect” but said it reflected a “sound and wise compromise that has been so absent in this place.” While some members expressed “serious concerns,” they did not say they would oppose the bill, he said.

“It wasn’t clear to me whether this has the momentum needed; I hope it does,” Rigell said.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) a member of the Tea Party Caucus in the House, said conservatives like him would not support an agreement that cuts the sequester and increases spending.

“Republicans said they wanted to reduce spending; this bill does exactly the opposite,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a good deal.”

Democrats, who likely will be needed in large numbers to pass the deal in the House, said Wednesday morning that they were still reviewing the agreement and would reserve judgment.

“Stay tuned,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters, adding that most members still have not seen the full text of the measure.

She also said it was “absolutely unconscionable that we could possibly even consider leaving Washington” for the holidays without tackling unemployment benefits as part of a new budget deal.

It fell to Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, to begin explaining the details to his colleagues in their weekly meeting Wednesday morning. Afterward, Van Hollen emphasized that the deal restores almost two-thirds of the budget cuts that were set to take place in January. The agreement is “a lot more equitable than it was 48 hours ago,” he said.

“Our caucus will have to look at the details as individuals, and obviously we’ll be doing that over the next couple days,” he said.

Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), whose suburban Maryland district is home to tens of thousands of active and retired federal employees, said he was heartened that the agreement eased the burden on a federal workforce already reeling from years of pay freezes and budget cuts.

“I get some comfort from the fact that the changes are really prospective for new federal workers, they don’t really affect any current federal workers, so I think that makes it much more manageable for people,” he said. “And I do think some certainty is important for federal workers, because another government shutdown isn’t good for federal workers.”

But Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), said several colleagues remain concerned that the agreement fails to extend unemployment benefits for about 1 million out-of-work Americans. Failure to extend the benefits would be “devastating” for thousands of people in her Denver-area district, she said.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said in an interview with C-SPAN that he also has some real concerns about the deal.

“I don’t want this budget to be done on the backs of the people who are most vulnerable,” he said. He said he was most concerned about cuts in pensions for federal workers and members of the military, as well as the end of long-term unemployment insurance.

He said he would be more inclined to vote for the deal if there were a separate bill to renew long-term unemployment insurance.

“I want an unemployment extension for sure,” Lewis said. “It’s Christmastime. People do not need to be going hungry.”

In addition to Heritage Action for America, conservative opponents of the budget deal include the anti-tax Club for Growth, Americans for Prosperity and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

In a statement opposing the plan, Paul said there is a “recurring theme in Washington budget negotiations.” Borrowing a line from the character Wimpy in “Popeye” cartoons, he said, “It’s ‘I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.’ ”

Club for Growth President Chris Chocola said, “This proposal swaps debt reduction today and next year for the dubious promise of debt reduction a decade from now.”

Pushing back against Boehner’s remarks Wednesday morning, Chocola denied in a separate statement that his group commented on the deal before it was complete. He said the Club for Growth stands with Paul, fellow GOP Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.), members of the Republican Study Committee in the House “and every other fiscal conservative who opposes the Ryan-Murray deal.”

“After carefully reviewing the budget deal . . . we determined that it would increase the size of government,” Chocola said. “We support pro-growth proposals when they are considered by Congress. In our evaluation, this isn’t one of those.”

Tim Phillips, head of Americans for Prosperity, decried the proposed end of spending levels imposed by sequestration.

“The American people remember hard-won bipartisan spending limits set by the sequester and are not pleased to see their conservative representatives so easily go back on their word to rein in government over-spending,” he said.

On the campaign trail, some Republican candidates running to the right of Senate incumbents started taking aim at the plan even before it was officially released.

Republican Matt Bevin, who is running to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said the plan would allow Washington to “continue its reckless spending.” Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R), who is challenging Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), called the plan a “complete abdication of Washington’s governing responsibility.”

The libertarian Cato Institute called the deal a “huge Republican cave-in” and said it “blows up the 2011 Budget Control Act,” which “had been the GOP’s only major spending accomplishment in years.” Cato’s director of tax policy studies, Chris Edwards, said Republicans are dumping the 2011 law “in return for revenue increases and spending trims that are mainly tiny and phony.”

In a rare display of bipartisan cooperation, Ryan and Murray stood side by side in the Capitol late Tuesday to announce the deal, which would cancel half of the sharp spending cuts known as the sequester for the current fiscal year.

Murray called the agreement “an important step in helping to heal some of the wounds here in Congress and show we can do something without another crisis around the corner.”

Ryan said the accord protects the Pentagon from fresh cuts set to hit in January while trimming deficits by more than $20 billion over the next decade.

With the deal already under fire from conservatives for weakening the sequester, Ryan argued that the package represents “a clear improvement on the status quo” by replacing one-time cuts to agency budgets with permanent savings from other programs.

In a “divided government” where Democrats control the White House and the Senate, Ryan reminded his critics, “you don’t always get what you want.”

The deal would not deliver a key demand of many Democrats, to extend unemployment insurance for the long-term jobless. While they pledged to keep fighting, senior Democrats acknowledged Tuesday that checks are likely to be cut off at the end of the month for more than a million people, potentially undercutting the strengthening economic recovery.

But the agreement could provide an offsetting boost to the economy by returning a degree of normalcy to the Washington budget process and restoring confidence in the ability of Republicans and Democrats to work together after years of destabilizing strife.

“This agreement doesn’t include everything I’d like — and I know many Republicans feel the same way. That’s the nature of compromise,” President Obama said in a statement late Tuesday. “But it’s a good sign that Democrats and Republicans in Congress were able to come together and break the cycle of short-sighted, crisis-driven ­decision-making to get this done.”

The deal was struck after weeks of private talks between Murray and Ryan, a political odd couple better known for advancing their parties’ agendas than for forging compromise. It represents an accomplishment and a risk for Ryan, who ran on the GOP presidential ticket in 2012 and still has White House aspirations.

Under the terms of the deal, spending for the Pentagon and other federal agencies would be set at $1.012 trillion for fiscal 2014, midway between the $1.058 trillion sought by Democrats and the $967 billion championed by Republicans. The Pentagon would get a $2 billion increase over last year, while domestic agencies would get a $22 billion bump, clearing space for administration priorities such as fresh investments in education and infrastructure.

For fiscal 2015, spending would increase only slightly, to $1.014 trillion, for a total of $63 billion in sequester replacement.

That cost would be covered through a mix of policies to be implemented over the next decade. They include $12.6 billion in higher security fees for airline passengers, $8 billion in higher premiums for federal insurance for private pensions, $6 billion in reduced payments to student-loan debt collectors and $3 billion saved by not completely refilling the nation’s strategic petroleum reserves.

Another large chunk of savings — $12 billion over the next decade — would come from reduced contributions to federal pensions, split evenly between military retirees and new civilian workers who start after Dec. 31.

For those in the military, the reduction would take the form of lower cost-of-living increases for retirees between the ages of 40 and 62, many of whom take other jobs while collecting their military pensions. New civilian workers, meanwhile, would be required to contribute an additional 1.3 percent to their retirements.

Current federal workers would not be affected, said Van Hollen, the lead budget negotiator for House Democrats. The impact on pensions, one of the last major issues to be decided, was hammered out during a weekend of talks between Van Hollen and Murray, who persuaded Ryan to spread the pain to the youngest military retirees.

On top of sequester replacement, the deal calls for an additional $22 billion in deficit reduction by extending a small part of the sequester into 2022 and 2023. That shift would primarily affect Medicare providers, who would face an additional two years of 2 percent across-the-board cuts.

Jackie Kucinich and Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.

Lori Montgomery covers U.S. economic policy and the federal budget, focusing on efforts to tame the national debt.
Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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