Congress passes bipartisan budget agreement

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress has sent President Barack Obama a modest, bipartisan budget pact designed to avert another U.S. government shutdown and ease the harshest effects of automatic budget cuts.

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.

The final vote on the measure was 64-36 in the Senate. The House approved the bill last week.

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 vote in the Senate — only about fallout in the 2014 elections and, more immediately, its impact on future congressional disputes over spending and the nation’s debt limit.

The measure will restore $45 billion, half the amount scheduled to be automatically cut from the 2014 operating budgets of the Pentagon and some domestic agencies, lifting them above $1 trillion. An additional $18 billion for 2015 would provide enough relief to essentially freeze spending at those levels for the year.

The budget deal marks a modest accomplishment for the divided and often dysfunctional Congress.

It comes at the end of a chaotic year punctuated by a 16-day partial government shutdown, spurred by Republicans in a futile attempt to curb implementation of Obama’s health care reform law, brinksmanship over raising the federal debt limit and congressional gridlock on issues ranging from immigration to gun control.

All that has taken a toll on the approval ratings of both Republicans and Democrats — and Obama himself — creating anxiety across the political spectrum over next year’s elections when control of Congress will be at stake.

The bill advanced Tuesday with the help of 12 Republicans, although several promised to oppose the measure in Wednesday’s final vote because it fails to take on the nation’s most pressing fiscal challenges. It would barely dent deficits that are predicted to lessen in the short term but grow larger by the end of the decade and into the next. Democrats supported the measure, even though many were unhappy that the measure lacked an extension of long-term unemployment benefits that are due to expire for nearly 1.3 million Americans on Dec. 28.

One provision, cutting the inflation increases of pensions for military retirees under the age of 62, was proving to be especially unpopular among members of both parties. Members of the military are eligible to retire after 20 years at half pay.

“We had to look at how we could find compromises,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, a Democrat who negotiated the bill with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Republican. “There’s things in this I like and there’s things I don’t like.”

The deal is a step toward restoring the trust of Americans who feel their government isn’t working, and also toward restoring lawmakers’ faith in each other, Murray told CNN on Wednesday.

Top Democrats said they would revisit the change in military pensions, which raises $6 billion over 10 years, before it takes effect in two years.

In a document defending the cut, Ryan’s staff called pensions to middle-aged military retirees “an exceptionally generous benefit, often providing 40 years of pension payment in return for 20 years of service” and noted that “most begin a second career after leaving the military.”

The budget pact sets the stage in January for the pragmatic-minded House and Senate Appropriations committees to draft a trillion-dollar-plus omnibus spending bill combining the 12 annual appropriations bills for the budget year that began Oct. 1. It would provide $1.012 trillion for the fiscal 2014 year already underway, a $45 billion increase over what would be required under the penalty imposed by a 2011 budget deal.

Agency budgets totaled $986 billion in 2013 after automatic cuts, which were imposed after Democrats and Republicans failed to reach a budget agreement.

The cuts, called sequestration, had been intended to be so onerous that they would force Washington to reach a lasting deal on government spending. But that grand bargain was never reached and the cuts caused numerous furloughs, harmed military readiness and slashed grants to local school districts, health researchers and providers of preschool care to low-income children.

Due to the design of the automatic cuts, even with the boost the Pentagon still would see its non-war 2014 budget essentially frozen at 2013 levels, while domestic agencies would see an increase of about 4 percent. But those levels remain well below what was envisioned in the 2011 budget pact.

The cuts would be replaced with money from things such as higher airline security fees, a requirement that new federal workers pay more toward their pensions, the 1-percentage-point cut in the pensions of working-age military retirees and premium increases on companies whose pension plans are insured by the federal government.

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