Resounding House vote quashes Senate opposition to budget deal

December 13, 2013

The year-end budget deal is likely to pass the Senate next week even though few Republican senators have publicly backed it, leadership aides say.

“It seems likely we’ll get there,” said a Senate Democrat leadership aide of the 60 votes needed to advance the budget agreement crafted by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

A Senate GOP leadership aide said the budget pact’s prospects received a strong boost Thursday when the House passed it with more than 300 votes.

“I don’t have any reason to think it won’t pass,” said the aide. “The vote yesterday in the House that got 169 Republicans was a big vote.”

The final tally was 332 to 94, a strong rebuke to conservative groups such as Club For Growth and Heritage Action that had urged lawmakers to oppose it.

The Senate is scheduled to consider the legislation on Tuesday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Friday predicted the bill would pass.

“Well, I would think it would,” he told Bloomberg Television in an interview. “I think it would be suicide if the Republicans didn’t pass it.”

When asked if every member of the Democrat Caucus would vote for it, he said, “Yeah, we’ll get our votes.”

A source familiar with the thinking of Senate Democratic leaders said the overwhelming House vote ended any thoughts that Senate Republicans might have had about blocking the deal.

“If they had any thought of it, it was evaporated by the vote in the House,” said the Senate insider.

Senate Democrat leaders need at least five Republicans to overcome a 60-vote hurdle and move the legislation to final passage.

So far, only Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) have said they are likely to vote for the deal.

“Although it is not the budget I would have written and I am concerned about the impact on the military retirees, I do consider it a significant step forward that will prevent us from continuing to lurch from crisis to crisis,” Collins told reporters.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R), McCain’s home-state colleague, said he would vote to end debate on the legislation but not for final passage.

Democrats need at least two more Republicans to end an expected filibuster against the deal, which reduces the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration by $63 billion over the next two years.

Democrat leaders could need to round up additional Republicans if they suffer defections within their own conference. A handful of Democrat senators, including Sen. Mark Pryor (Ark.), a vulnerable incumbent, are wavering on the vote.

The top three Senate Republican leaders — Sens. Mitch McConnell (Ky.), John Cornyn (Texas) and John Thune (S.D.) — have signaled they will vote against the package because it lifts spending caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act.

Republican advocates of the military have pushed all year for the reduction or elimination of sequestration that would hit the military disproportionately next year.

But several pro-defense Republicans, such as Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), have balked at the deal because it would cut pension payments to military retirees.

Working-age military retirees would see their payments drop by 1 percentage point, which veterans groups say could shave their benefits by 20 percent over the next two decades.

To help with the whip effort, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) released a statement Friday pledging to conduct a review of military pensions.

“We’re going to review this retiree pension issue as part of a review that we’re doing on benefits,” Levin said. “We will be reviewing this issue next year.”

“The budget, I believe, needs to be improved,” he said.

Even Republicans who usually vote for bipartisan deals on taxes and spending were slow to embrace the Murray-Ryan agreement.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) on Thursday voiced concerns about pension reductions for federal employees and military veterans as well as reforms to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR). The deal would rescind funds in the SPR Petroleum Account and bar the government from accepting oil though the royalty-in-kind program.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), a respected voice within the GOP conference on budget matters, came out against the deal Friday.

“I have maintained that any budget deal alternative to current law must preserve the taxpayer savings of existing law. The budget agreement does not accomplish this basic goal,” he said in a statement.

Several Democrats have threatened to vote against the agreement because it does not include extended unemployment benefits. But these liberal lawmakers are likely to help Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) end a GOP filibuster.

“I have not yet decided on the budget agreement,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). “I don’t want to leave town with unemployment insurance [unresolved]. Forty thousand people in my state lose their unemployment at the end of the year.”

Brown said he would vote for a cloture motion to set up a final vote, even if he votes “no” on final passage.

Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Bernie Sanders (Vt.), an independent who caucuses with Democrats, have also said they are undecided about whether to support the bill.

Reid has promised colleagues he will make unemployment benefits the first order of business in 2014.

Centrist Democrats such as Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) say they will vote “yes.”