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December 20, 2014

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House Republicans get behind budget agreement

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AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, left, joined by House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., takes reporters’ questions, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013, as House Republicans signaled support for a budget deal worked out Tuesday.

WASHINGTON — House Republicans are rallying behind a modest budget pact that promises to bring a temporary halt to budget brinkmanship in Washington and ease automatic budget cuts that would otherwise slam the Pentagon and domestic agencies for a second straight year.

At the same time, President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats are praising the measure negotiated with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who morphed from an uncompromising small-government stalwart into a divided-Washington dealmaker in order to claim a partial victory on the budget.

The deal Ryan negotiated with Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., would preserve the bulk of tough agency spending cuts the GOP won in a 2011 showdown with Obama, while greatly reducing the chances of a rerun of the politically debilitating partial government shutdown that the GOP stumbled into in October.

The measure, which was set for a vote Thursday, seemed sure to pass, despite unhappiness on the part of House Democrats cut out of the talks and also upset that it didn't contain a provision to renew jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed.

Nobody was claiming that the pact between the high-profile Ryan, his party's vice presidential nominee last year, and the tough-but-shrewd Murray, a 21-year veteran of the Senate, was perfect. It would ease $63 billion in scheduled spending cuts over the next two years and replace them with longer-term savings measured over 10 years, many of which won't accumulate until 2022-23. Deficits would increase by $23.2 billion in 2014 and by $18.2 billion the year after that.

But the deal would put a dysfunctional Washington on track to prevent unappealing cuts to military readiness and weapons, as well as continued cuts to programs cherished by Democrats and Republicans alike, including health research, school aid, FBI salaries and border security. The cuts would be replaced with money from — among other things — higher airline security fees, curbs on the pension benefits of new federal workers or working-age military retirees, and premium increases on companies whose pension plans are insured by the federal government.

"Much of the spending increase in this deal has been justified by increased fees and new revenue," said Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the top Senate Budget Committee Republican. "In other words, it's a fee increase to fuel a spending increase, rather than reducing deficits."

The Ryan-Murray pact uses a combination of mostly low-profile cuts and the new fee revenues, much of which won't occur until after the turn of the next decade, to ease cuts mandated by the inability of Congress and the White House to follow up a 2011 budget pact with additional deficit cuts.

Those cuts were intended to be so fearsome that they would force the capital's warring factions to make budget peace. Instead, after the first-year impact of so-called sequestration wasn't as bad as advertised, many Republicans have come to embrace them. The Ryan-Murray deal recognizes that the second year of the automatic cuts would be worse than the first, especially for the Pentagon, and seeks to ease their pain.

Two of Ryan's potential rivals if he seeks the GOP presidential nomination in 2016 — Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — are against the measure.

On Wednesday, Ryan briefed members of the Republican rank and file in private on the deal, then emerged to tell reporters it "helps produce more certainty because it stops a potential government shutdown in January and it stops a potential government shutdown in October" of next year.

"As a conservative, I deal with the situation as it exists. I deal with the way things are, not necessarily the way I want them to be," Ryan said in unveiling the measure on Tuesday. "I've passed three budgets in a row that reflect my priorities and my principles and everything I wanted to accomplish. We're in divided government. I realize I'm not going to get that."

"Looking at it on its own merits, I think the pros outweigh the cons," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who worked privately to secure a last-minute change that shields current federal workers from higher pension costs.

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