A bipartisan deal on the federal budget

House and Senate negotiators overcame partisan divisions to hammer out a budget deal, but it remained unclear whether it would be approved.

What happened

House and Senate negotiators overcame partisan divisions this week to hammer out a budget deal designed to ease next year’s automatic sequester cuts and avert another government shutdown. But it remained unclear whether Congress would approve the two-year deal struck by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Budget Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.). The deal would increase federal spending for the current fiscal year from the $967 billion agreed in 2011 to $1.012 trillion; it would rise next year to $1.014 trillion. Sequester spending cuts would be reduced by half in 2014 and another fourth the year after, for a two-year total of $63 billion, split evenly between defense and nondefense spending. Increased airline fees, higher pension contributions from federal employees, and cuts to Medicare providers would make up the difference. Both Ryan and Murray acknowledged the deal was imperfect, but said it was necessary. “It is an important step in helping heal some of the wounds here in Congress,” said Murray.

Lawmakers from both parties were quick to criticize the deal. Some Democrats were angry that the budget didn’t extend benefits for the long-term unemployed, while many House Republicans rued the loss of sequester cuts. Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) said the agreement “blows up the only real significant spending restraint passed since…the 2010 elections.” Ryan defended the deal as a realistic compromise. “In divided government, you don’t always get what you want,” he said. The House was due to vote on the budget after The Week went to press.

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What the editorials said

This is a far cry from a Grand Bargain, said USA Today. In fact, the deal “barely qualifies as a tweak.” It doesn’t touch tax reform or Medicare and Social Security spending, reducing the deficit by a “paltry” $23 billion, or about 0.3 percent, over 10 years. Yes, the deal is “small potatoes” compared with the structural changes we need in federal spending, said The Denver Post. But at least it appears to be a “genuine compromise,” with both parties ceding ground. “Let’s celebrate bipartisanship where we find it.”

Conservatives may not find much to celebrate, said The Wall Street Journal, but this deal is “probably the best that the GOP could get.” Yes, it removes sequester cuts—but the party’s defense hawks will be happy with that, even if the deficit hawks aren’t. Ryan was also able to negotiate some genuine, lasting savings on federal pensions. It’s the “least bad agreement” Republicans could hope for.

What the columnists said

Paul Ryan has put a “lump of coal” in the GOP’s stocking, said Andy Koenig in The Washington Times. Instead of slowing the rising costs of entitlements, this deal increases spending, with taxpayers picking up the tab in the form of a $5.60 fee on airline tickets. And it guts the sequester, the “most successful budget-reduction strategy of the past decade.” But House conservatives don’t have the votes to maintain the sequester, said William Kristol in WeeklyStandard.com. This modest adjustment will both strengthen national defense and avoid more “intra-GOP wars and possible government shutdowns.”

It’s no great deal for Democrats either, said Ezra Klein in WashingtonPost.com. The GOP negotiators “proved hostile” to even limited extensions to unemployment insurance, which is due to expire for 1.3 million Americans at the end of the year. And Democrats “flatly got beat on sequestration,” leaving half of this year’s cuts still intact without a penny in new taxes.

Alas, this is “what counts as success in Washington these days,” said Doyle McManus in the Los Angeles Times: “A budget deal that almost everyone hates, and that doesn’t solve any of the country’s problems.” So why are party leaders throwing their support behind it? Because they want to move on. Republicans want to avoid more divisive budgetary battles and “spend 2014 talking about the failings of Obamacare.” Democrats want to focus on keeping the Senate, by pushing populist economic policies like a higher minimum wage. “Does that qualify as success?” With the parties as far apart as ever on entitlement reform and new revenue, “it might.”

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