Congress OKs bipartisan budget deal, but road ahead not easy
Congress sent President Barack Obama a bipartisan budget accord Friday that staves off a destabilizing U.S. default, eases the threat of a federal shutdown and spotlights the pitfalls -- and opportunities -- posed by the current brand of divided government.
The Senate used a post-midnight, 64-35 vote to ship the package to the White House. The House approved the measure two days earlier by a similarly comfortable 266-167 margin, and Obama plans to sign it Monday.
Yet those no-sweat votes masked turmoil beneath the surface. The Republicans who run Congress opposed the legislation by a 2-1 edge in each chamber, telegraphing challenges ahead for Obama, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and their new governing partner, House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Here's the roadmap:
WHAT'S IN THE BUDGET AGREEMENT?
There's an extra $50 billion this year and $30 billion next year for spending, split between defense and domestic programs. That's moderately more than the $1.1 trillion annually the government already planned to spend.
There'll be no huge increase in Medicare premiums for doctor's care that would have hit 15 million people, or cuts in 11 million disabled workers' Social Security disability benefits.
Savings include trimming future Medicare reimbursements to some health-care providers, selling oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and boosting some employers' costs for insuring workers' pensions.
Most importantly, the extra dollars make it likely Congress will fund the government after Dec. 11, when agencies otherwise would run out of money and would have to close. And the Treasury Department was given authority to borrow money until March 2017 -- avoiding a first-ever federal default next week, which economists warn could badly wound the economy.
Yet the deal underscores the boundaries on how far the two parties can get these days.
Its major achievement was to avoid two awful scenarios that most in Washington were desperate to avoid. Its contents are modest, falling shy of the bigger spending boosts Democrats would love to win and lacking far larger savings Republicans would love to wring from giant entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.
BUT SMOOTH SAILING AHEAD, RIGHT?
Lawmakers still must approve additional legislation by Dec. 11 detailing how much money each agency will get, and for which programs.
Initial versions of those bills contain GOP-written provisions that Obama and Democrats consider nonstarters. That includes language to block federal funds for Planned Parenthood, curb enforcement of clean air and water rules, hinder Obama's efforts to improve trade with Cuba, undo controls over financial institutions enacted after the Great Recession and undermine the president's health care overhaul.
In a statement Friday praising the budget pact, Obama signaled confrontations ahead, warning Republicans against "getting sidetracked by ideological provisions."
THOSE RAMBUNCTIOUS REPUBLICANS
This week's votes showed the juggling facing McConnell, R-Ky., and Ryan, R-Wis., when it comes to winning GOP votes for bills Obama would sign.
Not that getting his signature is always a priority. Approaching the 2016 election year, Republicans would be happy to push bills through Congress highlighting GOP priorities if they can, even though Obama wouldn't let them become law.
But when it comes to cutting deals with the president that GOP leaders think will benefit their party -- like avoiding a shutdown or default -- plenty of Republicans have little motivation to cooperate, especially when they know others will provide the votes to get the bills through.
Hardcore conservatives, like the few dozen members of the House Freedom Caucus, have deep ideological differences with Obama. Many, plus other GOP lawmakers, represent areas whose conservative voters could oust them in a party primary if they're too accommodating to the president. Republican Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Rob Portman of Ohio and Charles Grassley of Iowa, mainstream conservatives with pragmatic streaks, would all like to avoid serious primary challenges next year and all opposed the budget deal.
Then there are the GOP presidential hopefuls, who must lure conservative voters sure to flock to their party's 2016 primaries and caucuses. Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas all opposed the budget agreement, though South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, an aggressive supporter of the Pentagon, backed it.
A PATHWAY TO ACHIEVEMENT
The House Freedom Caucus dogged former Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, until he resigned and derailed the rise of his expected successor, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
But they came under pressure to not overplay their hand and accept Ryan, who is widely respected across the GOP. And badly outnumbered among the House's 247 Republicans, two votes this week showed how they can be trampled when necessary -- by bipartisan coalitions.
First, business-friendly Republicans combined with Democrats to revive the Export-Import Bank, which helps U.S. exporters. Then before departing, Boehner pushed the budget deal through, uniting Republicans eager to avoid a default and shutdown with Democrats to rout conservative opponents.
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