Senate moves to pass budget, with vote to end debate

McClatchy Washington BureauDecember 16, 2013 

— The Senate sent a clear message that the two-year bipartisan budget plan has strong bipartisan support, as it voted Tuesday 67 to 33 to remove a key hurdle to its passage.

The vote means debate on the measure will be limited, and passage is now virtually assured later Tuesday or Wednesday.

Twelve Republicans joined 53 Democrats and two independents in voting for the limits. Sixty were needed.

Republicans voting yes were: Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Susan Collins of Maine, Jeff Flake and John McCain of Arizona, Orrin Hatch of Utah, John Hoeven of North Dakota, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Rob Portman of Ohio.

A big reason for the likely approval: Lawmakers are eager to head home and show gridlock-weary constituents that Congress can get something done.

Congress’ average 2013 Gallup poll approval rating is 14 percent, its lowest level in the survey’s 39 years. Senators and representatives realize the public is tired of the bickering and the gridlock.

A big reason for the likely approval: Lawmakers are eager to head home and show gridlock-weary constituents that Congress can get something done.

Congress’ average 2013 Gallup poll approval rating is 14 percent, its lowest level in the survey’s 39 years. Senators and representatives realize the public is tired of the bickering and the gridlock.

Among those expected to vote to cut off debate are Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and John McCain of Arizona.

Sen. Hatch’s view was widely shared among that group. “This agreement isn’t everything I hoped it would be, and it isn’t what I would have written,” he said, “but sometimes the answer has to be yes.”

A lot of fellow Senate Republicans disagree. Tuesday’s vote will be closely watched as an illustration of a growing divide in the party, a split that could reverberate in the 2014 and 2016 elections.

The three Republican senators often mentioned as 2016 presidential candidates – Florida’s Marco Rubio, Texas’ Ted Cruz and Kentucky’s Rand Paul – were quick to sharply criticize the deal.

Expected to also vote no is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. He has often supported such agreements, but in recent years he has been blasted by tea party groups for being too conciliatory.

Next year, he faces a Republican primary challenge from businessman Matt Bevin. Bevin has been endorsed by the Senate Conservatives Fund, a political action committee founded by former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint. DeMint has since left to become president of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

They, as well as other more conservative Republicans, see the plan announced last week by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., as failing to stop a government spending spree.

The plan would relax the automatic spending cuts, or sequester, during the current fiscal year and fiscal 2015. Spending on discretionary items, where Congress and the White House can set annual limits, would increase $63 billion over the sequester, to an annual total of $1.012 trillion this year and about $1.014 trillion next year. Current discretionary spending is at a $986 billion level.

The increase would be split between domestic and defense programs. Supporters boast that the spending would be offset by $85 billion in additional revenue and other savings, spread over 10 years. New federal workers would see pension contributions increase, aviation security fees would go up, and cost-of-living increases for younger military retirees would be reduced.

The agreement is likely to mean deficits should go up slightly this year and next, and it does nothing to reduce the nation’s $17.2 trillion debt.

“This proposal undoes the sequester’s modest reforms and pushes us two steps back, deeper into debt,” said Cruz. “Supporters of this plan are asking for more spending now in exchange for minor changes that may possibly reduce spending later.”

Conservative interest groups are on the political warpath, vowing to make voters remember lawmakers did little more than agree to a small-scale deal designed to send them home for the year without tackling bigger fiscal issues.

“This deal also exposes the true colors of several in the GOP establishment when it comes to protecting conservative principles,” said Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots.

Defying the tea party is a risk a lot of Republicans are willing to take. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio last week charged that many conservative interest groups lack credibility, and Gallup last week reported “for the first time, a slim majority of Americans say they have an unfavorable opinion of the tea party movement.”

It may also be telling that little serious resistance is expected this week when the Senate takes up the budget. Cruz engaged in a 21-hour, 19-minute talkathon in September opposing the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

This time, there’s been no talk about pulling money from Obamacare or tying the Senate in procedural knots. Asked what his strategy might be on the budget this time, Cruz had no comment.

Email: dlightman@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @lightmandavid

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