Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, and other Republicans walk to a closed-door GOP meeting before the Senate moves to pass a modest, bipartisan budget bill, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013.
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WASHINGTON — Congress sent President Obama legislation Wednesday scaling back across-the-board cuts on programs ranging from the Pentagon to the national park system, adding a late dusting of bipartisanship to a year more likely to be remembered for a partial government shutdown and near-perpetual gridlock.
Mr. Obama’s signature was assured on the measure, which lawmakers in both parties and opposite ends of the Capitol said they hoped would curb budget brinkmanship and prevent more shutdowns.
“It’s a good first step away from the shortsighted, crisis-driven decision-making that has only served to act as a drag on our economy,” he said in a statement after the vote. Yet, he quickly added, “There is much more work to do to ensure our economy works for every working American.”
The legislation passed the Democratic-controlled Senate 64-36, six days after clearing the GOP-run House by a similarly bipartisan margin of 332-94.
Both of Ohio’s senators, Republican Rob Portman and Democrat Sherrod Brown, and both of Michigan’s senators, Democrats Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin, voted for the bill.
The budget deal amounts to a handshake agreement to avoid a government shutdown when a temporary funding measure expires Jan. 15. However, the accord does not address the need once again to raise the debt limit, setting up a potentially complicated confrontation in late February or early March.
But as they rushed to finish work and leave town for a three-week Christmas break, senators were more inclined to bask in the glow of the budget deal than plot strategy for the debt limit. The pact draws to a close nearly three years of fighting over agency budgets — battles that repeatedly risked shutting down the government and did close parks, museums, and federal offices for 16 days in October.
The product of intensive year-end talks, the measure that passed met the short-term political needs of Republicans, Democrats, and the White House. As a result, there was no suspense about the outcome of the Senate vote — only about fallout in the 2014 elections and, more immediately, its impact on future congressional disputes over spending and the nation’s debt limit.
“I’m tired of the gridlock and the American people that I talk to, especially from Arkansas, are tired of it as well,” said Sen. Mark Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat who supported the bill yet will have to defend his vote in next year’s campaign for a new term. His likely Republican rival, Rep. Tom Cotton, voted against the measure last week when it cleared the House.
The measure, negotiated by Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), averts $63 billion in across-the-board cuts that were themselves the result of an earlier inability of lawmakers and the White House to agree on a sweeping deficit reduction plan. That represents about one-third of the cuts originally ticketed for the 2014 and 2015 budget years and known in Washington as sequestration.
Democrats expressed satisfaction that money would be restored for programs such as Head Start and education, and lawmakers in both parties and the White House cheered the cancellation of more cuts at the Pentagon.
To offset the added spending, the legislation provides $85 billion in savings elsewhere in the budget. Included are hikes in the airline ticket tax that helps pay for security at airports and a fee corporations pay to have pensions guaranteed by the government. Most controversial by far was a provision to curtail annual cost-of-living increases in benefits that go to military retirees under age 62, a savings of $6.3 billion over a decade for the government.
By one estimate, the result would be a reduction of nearly $72,000 in benefits over a lifetime for a sergeant first class who retires at age 42 after 20 years of service. Veterans groups and their allies in Congress objected vociferously to what they said was a singling out of former members of the military, and key lawmakers in both parties said they would take a second look at the provision next year.
But Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), said a veteran of identical rank who retired at 38 still winds up with $1.62 million in retirement pay over a lifetime. He also pointed out that a prominent deficit commission headed by Erskine Bowles, former White House chief of staff, and former Sen. Alan Simpson had recommended abolishing COLAs for military retirement pay, a far deeper curtailment than that in the legislation.
Tea-party organizations lined up to oppose the legislation, arguing it would raise spending. Deficits are expected to rise slightly for three years because of the bill.
Three potential GOP presidential contenders, Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Ted Cruz of Texas, all opposed the bill. So, too, did the party’s top leaders, Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and John Cornyn of Texas, and several members of the rank and file who face primary challenges.
On the final vote Wednesday, all 53 Democrats, two independents, and nine Republicans voted for the bill.