The two lead budget negotiators in Congress have announced a comprehensive budget deal to keep the federal government funded for the next two years.
The deal, announced Tuesday evening by Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., in a joint news conference in Washington, D.C., represented a rare case of bipartisanship in this divided political era, and it provides a framework for the nation’s priorities and commitments.
The budget plan, announced just before a self-imposed deadline Friday, would reduce the federal deficit by an estimated $20 billion to $23 billion, and would set this fiscal year’s (2014) overall discretionary spending at $1.012 trillion, a compromise between the Senate budget proposal’s $1.058 trillion mark and the House budget’s $967 billion level.
“I’m proud of this agreement,” Ryan said. “It reduces the deficit — without raising taxes. And it cuts spending in a smarter way. It’s a firm step in the right direction, and I ask all my colleagues in the House to support it.”
Both lawmakers spoke about the conciliatory effect that coming to an agreement on the budget deal could have in the Congress, where persistent stalemate and obstructionism have left lawmakers unable to address many crucial issues facing the United States.
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“This agreement breaks through the recent dysfunction to prevent another government shutdown and roll back sequestration’s cuts to defense and domestic investments in a balanced way,” Murray said. “It’s a good step in the right direction that can hopefully rebuild some trust and serve as a foundation for continued bipartisan work.”
Conservative groups had pressed for the deal to be nixed in recent days, complaining about potential capitulation to Democrats and the potential for tax raises. They also said the budget should not undo any of the sequester cuts.
Some of Ryan’s fellow Republicans also criticized the deal, as Time reported earlier on Tuesday, though both Ryan and Murray expressed optimism that it would be able to be passed out of Congress.
“The deal is not going to be what mainstream Republicans hoped for,” Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., the Senate Budget Committee’s ranking Republican, told the magazine. “It’ll probably turn out to be a very tough call for a lot of people who want to have an agreement but also want to see progress made in certain areas.”
Ryan said that he supports the budget deal, dubbed the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, and that conservatives should understand why he agreed to it despite the pleas from many of his right-wing colleagues and the fact that it provides $63 billion in so-called sequester relief, which, he noted, are fully offset by other savings in the budget plan.
“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. “This agreement takes us in the right direction from my perspective … Net deficit reduction without raising taxes. That’s fiscal conservatism.”
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, backed Ryan in a statement released shortly after the agreement was announced.
“While modest in scale, this agreement represents a positive step forward by replacing one-time spending cuts with permanent reforms to mandatory spending programs that will produce real, lasting savings,” Boehner said.
President Barack Obama, who attended Nelson Mandela's memorial in South Africa Tuesday morning, also expressed support for the deal shortly after it was announced.
“Today’s bipartisan budget agreement is a good first step,” he said in a statement. “This agreement replaces a portion of the across-the-board spending cuts known as "the sequester” that have harmed students, seniors, and middle-class families and served as a mindless drag on our economy over the last year.”
The House is expected to take up the budget first, followed by the Senate.
The deal came after more than two years of “fiscal cliff” nail-biters and budget crises and a 16-day government shutdown in October. To avoid a repetition of the funding lapse that robbed the economy of more than $24 billion, Ryan and Murray decided to go to conference to hammer out a plan to get Washington, and the country, moving. They headed a team of 29 members who decided to narrow their focus to small changes like federal workers’ pensions and airline passenger fees, and refrain from striving for a grand bargain that forces a compromise on core principles and would cause some to leave the negotiation table.
With their modest ambitions, lawmakers did little to tackle the $17.3 trillion national debt. They also made no major movements on taxes and entitlements, and therefore, Democrats and Republicans essentially kicked the can down the road on these issues. They had until Friday to come to a budget resolution. The federal government was set to run out of money on Jan. 15 and the federal debt ceiling will need another increase by Feb. 7.
Without a deal, lawmakers would have been under pressure to pass a continuing resolution to fund the government for the remainder of the 2014 fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
“Basically it is a deal to keep the government open,” said Thomas Hungerford, director of tax and budget at the liberal Economic Policy Institute, noting that a longer-term mechanism would be preferable. “I think we need more tax revenues and taxes were off the table.”
Others pointed out that any budget deal is an accomplishment for this fractious Congress. Jo Comerford, executive director at the Massachusetts-based National Priorities Project, said the agreement is acknowledgement by Congress that it needed to act by a certain time to avoid the crisis and ignominy of another shutdown.
“This small deal is a monumental lift for this Congress that has had a great deal of difficulty brokering any kind of non-dramatic way forward,” Comerford said, adding that it should be celebrated in light of past failures and the most recent shutdown that furloughed 800,000 federal workers.
Still, there could be another hurdle, as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has said she will not support any compromise on sequestration until Republicans renew unemployment benefits set to expire on Dec. 28. About 1.3 million people stand to lose benefits that day. And with conservatives opposed to any increase in spending, it’s looking like the House will become the sticking point.
When asked about this potential obstacle, Hungerford said it probably will be hard to get a majority in the House to vote for a deal of this sort.
“It may be ... liberal Democrats team up with the Tea Party Republicans and stop a deal,” he said. “That’s one scenario. In the Senate, I think you could probably get some kind of deal through much easier than it might be in the House.”