Budget Deal Bumbling Forward: Senate Prepares for Vote

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On December 17, with a count of 67 to 33, the U.S. Senate voted to end debate on the federal budget compromise proposed by the budget conference committee and passed by the House of Representatives last week, opening the door for a vote to approve the legislation, expected for Thursday.

The budget was proposed by a committee established as part of the stopgap deal that ended the 16-day partial government shutdown in October. The committee is co-chaired by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who appeared to be so exhausted by political warfare that they sought the path of least resistance and concocted a ceasefire so modest that it appears to offend only the relatively radical members of Congress.

The ingredients — relief from spending cuts, no new taxes, a dash of deficit reduction — all speak to the kind of fiscal responsibility that is needed right now. However, while the overall dish appears palatable to most legislators as well as President Barack Obama, there is still some resistance, mostly from the Republican camp. Senate debate was ended with the support of every Democrat and a dozen Republicans.

The deal provides for $63 billion worth of relief from the sequester over two years ($45 billion in fiscal 2014 and $18 billion in fiscal 2015), split evenly between military and domestic programs. This is something that appeals to Democrats and that many Republicans can tolerate.

The sequester has often been criticized as a blunt tool, and the proposal on the table now is much more refined. Changes to federal retirement programs, for example, will only impact new hires as opposed to existing personnel, and changes to military benefits won’t affect the elderly or disabled. The deal also seeks to increase revenue by increasing the fees the Transportation Security Administration charges airports and the rate charged to companies to insure their pension benefits.

The deal is seasoned with between $20 billion and $23 billion in additional deficit reduction spread over 10 years, and extends a 2 percent cut to medicare providers. The federal fiscal 2014 discretionary spending level would be set at $1.012 trillion and at $1.014 trillion for fiscal 2015.

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