Without partisan gamesmanship, Congress approves budget plan

  • Article by: DAVID ESPO , Associated Press
  • Updated: December 18, 2013 - 7:13 PM

Spending plan could prevent future federal shutdowns.

 

– 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.

Obama’s signature was assured on the measure, which lawmakers in both parties and at opposite ends of the Capitol said they hoped would curb budget brinkmanship and prevent more shutdowns in the near future.

“It’s a good first step away from the shortsighted, crisis-driven decisionmaking that has only served to act as a drag on our economy,” Obama said in a statement issued after the vote. And yet, he quickly added, “there is much more work to do to ensure our economy works for every working American.”

The measure passed the Democratic-controlled Senate on a vote of 64-36, six days after clearing the Republican-run House by a similarly bipartisan margin of 332-94. Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, both Democrats, voted yes.

‘Tired of the gridlock’

The product of intensive year-end talks, the measure 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. There are questions about fallout in the 2014 elections and the effect on future congressional disputes over spending and the 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, a 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 spending 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 like Head Start and education, and lawmakers in both parties and the White House cheered the cancellation of future cuts at the Pentagon.

To offset the added spending, the legislation provides about $85 billion in savings from elsewhere in the budget. Included are increases in the airline ticket tax that helps pay for security at airports and a fee that corporations pay to have pensions guaranteed by the government.

Debate over military retirees

Most controversial by far was a provision to curtail annual cost-of-living increases in benefits that go to military retirees younger than 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 to what they said was a singling out of former members of the military, and lawmakers in both parties said they would take another look at the provision next year.

But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said a veteran of identical rank who retired at 38 would still wind up with $1.62 million in retirement pay over a lifetime. He also pointed out that a prominent deficit commission had recommended abolishing cost-of-living increases for military retirement pay as part of a sweeping deficit reduction plan, a far deeper curtailment included in the legislation.

McCain asked if there were an alternative to the legislation that would also “prevent us from shutting down the government again, something that I refuse to inflict on the citizens of my state.”

Murray responded there was no other legislation to accomplish that. She added that if the bill did not pass, the Pentagon “would take another $20 billion hit” from across-the-board cuts early next year, with some personnel furloughed as a result.

She made one concession, promising to work to exclude disabled veterans from the change contained in the bill.

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