WASHINGTON — Congress sent President Barack Obama legislation Wednesday scaling back across-the-board cuts on programs ranging from the Pentagon to the national park system, adding a late dusting of bipartisanship to a year more likely to be remembered for a partial government shutdown and near-perpetual gridlock.
“It’s a good first step away from the shortsighted, crisis-driven decision-making that has only served to act as a drag on our economy,” he said of the measure in a statement issued after the vote. And yet, he quickly added, “there is much more work to do to ensure our economy works for every working American.”
The legislation passed the Democratic-controlled Senate on a vote of 64-36, six days after clearing the Republican-run House by a similarly bipartisan margin of 332-94.
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.
“I’m tired of the gridlock and the American people that I talk to, especially from Arkansas, are tired of it as well,” said Sen. Mark Pryor, a Democrat who supported the bill yet will have to defend his vote in next year’s campaign for a new term. His likely Republican rival, Rep. Tom Cotton, voted against the measure last week when it cleared the House.
The measure, negotiated by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., averts $63 billion in across-the-board spending cuts that were themselves the result of an earlier inability of lawmakers and the White House to agree on a sweeping deficit reduction plan. That represents about one-third of the cuts originally ticketed for the 2014 and 2015 budget years and known in Washington as sequestration.
Democrats expressed satisfaction that money would be restored for programs like Head Start and education, and lawmakers in both parties and the White House cheered the cancellation of future cuts at the Pentagon.
To offset the added spending, the legislation provides about $85 billion in savings from elsewhere in the budget. Included are increases in the airline ticket tax that helps pay for security at airports and a fee corporations pay to have pensions guaranteed by the government. Most controversial by far was a provision to curtail annual cost of living increases in benefits that go to military retirees under age 62, a savings of $6.3 billion over a decade for the government.
By one estimate, the result would be a reduction of nearly $72,000 in benefits over a lifetime for a sergeant first class who retires at age 42 after 20 years of service. Veterans groups and their allies in Congress objected vociferously to what they said was a singling out of former members of the military, and key lawmakers in both parties said they would take a second look at the provision next year.
But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said a veteran of identical rank who retired at 38 would still wind up with $1.62 million in retirement pay over a lifetime. He also pointed out that a prominent deficit commission headed by former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson had recommended abolishing cost of living increases for military retirement pay as part of a sweeping deficit reduction plan, a far deeper curtailment included in the legislation.
McCain, who was a Vietnam prisoner of war, also asked rhetorically if there were an alternative to the pending legislation that would also “prevent us from shutting down the government again, something that I refuse to inflict on the citizens of my state.”
In response, Murray said there was no other legislation to accomplish that. She added that if the bill did not pass, the Pentagon “would take another $20 billion hit” from across-the-board cuts early next year, with some personnel furloughed as a result.
She made one concession, telling Georgians Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss she would work to exclude disabled veterans from the change contained in the legislation.
The longer-term political fallout was harder to calculate.
Tea party organizations lined up to oppose the legislation, arguing that it would raise spending. Deficits are projected to rise slightly for three years because of the bill. Three potential GOP presidential contenders, Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, all opposed the bill.
So, too, did the party’s top leaders, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and John Cornyn of Texas, and several members of the rank and file who face primary challenges from the right next year.
Even so, the leadership’s opposition did not extend to an effort to derail the bill, which advanced over a critical procedural obstacle on Tuesday with the support of a dozen Republican senators. On the final vote Wednesday, all 53 Democrats, two independents and nine Republican voted for the bill. Defeating the measure would have required a fresh round of negotiations with the House, with no guarantee that a partial shutdown could be avoided when current government funding expires on Jan. 15.
Passage of the measure will permit the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to draft a massive, trillion-dollar-plus omnibus measure to run the government through the end of September 2014. Lawmakers are expected to use the opportunity to assert their own priorities rather than defer as frequently to the administration, a tactic that is less possible when short-term bills must be passed with a shutdown looming.
The canceled across-the-board reductions put spending on general government programs at $1.012 trillion for the 12 annual appropriations bills for the budget year that began Oct. 1 and a nearly identical $1.014 for the next.
Agency budgets totaled $986 billion in 2013 after automatic cuts called sequestration were imposed, causing numerous furloughs, harming military readiness and cutting grants to local school districts, health researchers and providers of Head Start preschool care to low-income children, among numerous effects. The next round of automatic cuts would have sent spending down to $967 billion.
The cuts themselves were triggered after lawmakers failed to agree two years ago on a far more sweeping series of deficit reductions.