A bipartisan budget bill that would ease some, but not all, of painful budget cuts that would otherwise slam the Pentagon and domestic agencies passed a pivotal test in the Senate on Tuesday.
The Senate advanced the Ryan-Murray measure over a filibuster threshold on a 67-33 vote that ensures the measure will pass the Democratic-led chamber no later than Wednesday, then head to the White House to be signed into law.
Twelve Republicans voted with Democrats to advance the measure over a 60-vote filibuster threshold demanded by GOP leaders.
Announcements Monday by Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Georgia Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss, as well as a strong hint by Republican Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota, that they would back that step appeared to seal enough GOP support to advance the measure. Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, whose home-state GOP colleague Ryan was a top negotiator on the bill, got behind it Sunday.
Other Republicans voting for the measure included Roy Blunt of Missouri, Rob Portman of Ohio, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker of Tennessee, and John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona.
"Sometimes the answer has to be yes," Hatch said. "The reality is that Republicans only control one-half of one-third of government. Ultimately, this agreement upholds the principles conservatives stand for and, with Democrats controlling the White House and the Senate, it is the best we could hope for."
Still, with 2014 primary opponents waiting in the wings, some Republican lawmakers are finding it difficult to support even such a limited deal. And those who voted, for it, all of whom are up for re-election next year, are sure to face pressure from more conservative Republicans.
"Anyone up in 2014 is as nervous as a Christmas goose and they'll probably vote against it," said Ross Baker, a congressional expert at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "Given the risks involved, none of them wants to gratuitously antagonize the conservative Republican base.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who is up for re-election next year, opposed the measure but did not try to engineer its defeat.
McConnell is embroiled in a primary battle with a tea party challenger — businessman Matt Bevin — who has been sending out daily news releases needling McConnell.
"Where's Mitch?" yesterday's email was headlined.
Sen. Thad Cochran, a Mississippi Republican, received similar treatment in a dispatch yesterday from his 2014 primary challenger, Chris McDaniel.
"Mississippi taxpayers deserve to know if Sen. Cochran will support this disastrous bill or if he will have the courage to vote against it," McDaniel said.
In an episode that illustrates the dilemma facing GOP leaders trying to burnish their conservative credentials as they face tea party-backed challengers, the Senate's No. 2 Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, announced his opposition Monday morning on his campaign's website — a step his Senate office was unwilling to take.
It was later deleted after reporters from The Associated Press asked for confirmation of a Cornyn quote that appeared on the conservative Internet site Breitbart.com.
"Senator Cornyn opposes this budget deal because it breaks previously set spending caps and goes in the 'wrong direction' with regards to entitlement spending," according to the post. On Monday, his Senate spokeswoman, Kate Martin, would only say that Cornyn would take "a close look" at the measure and is "concerned" that it reverses some of the spending cuts won in a hard-fought 2011 budget pact.
The silence of GOP leaders was taken by Democrats and Republicans alike that McConnell and Cornyn were in the "vote 'no,' hope 'yes'" camp. That's a derogatory term sometimes employed by conservative critics who blast Republicans for voting a tea party line when it's clear they actually prefer an opposite result.
"It's a safe bet, pretty safe bet, McConnell will not let this go down," a senior Senate Democrat, Chuck Schumer of New York, said Monday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." ''I'm sure the Republican leadership, I would bet, is not going to risk another government shutdown. The vote in the House made that certain."
Nobody is claiming the pact worked out between Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington is perfect. It eases $63 billion in scheduled spending cuts over the next two years and replaces them with longer-term savings measured over 10 years, many of which don't accumulate until 2022-2023. Deficits would increase by $23.2 billion in 2014 and by $18.2 billion the year after that.
The measure would ease some of the harshest cuts to agency budgets required under automatic spending curbs commonly known as sequestration. It would replace $45 billion in scheduled cuts for the 2014 budget year already underway, lifting agency budgets to a little more than $1 trillion, and it also would essentially freeze spending at those levels for 2015. It substitutes other spending cuts and new fees to replace the automatic cuts and devotes a modest $23 billion to reducing the deficit over the coming decade.
It would also stabilize a broken budget process after a partial government shutdown in October that inflicted political harm upon Republicans. The GOP has since rebounded because of the much-criticized rollout of Obamacare, and the party wishes to keep the focus on that topic rather than Washington political brinksmanship.
"This bipartisan bill takes the first steps toward rebuilding our broken budget process. And hopefully, toward rebuilding our broken Congress," said Murray, chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee. "We've spent far too long here scrambling to fix artificial crises instead of working together to solve the big problems we all know we need to address."
"We're far better off approving this budget than not, so I will be voting for it," Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, said Monday in an interview at the Capitol. Still, she said she had "some reservations," particularly over the treatment of military retirees.
Spending cuts would be replaced with money from, among other things, curbs on the pension benefits of new federal workers or working-age military retirees. The measure was opposed by groups representing military retirees, who attended a news conference with bill opponents just minutes before the vote.
"We're keeping the government open and screwing all military retirees," said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
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