U.S. Budget Deal Set To Pass Congress Wednesday


Washington (AFP) – The U.S. Senate backed a bipartisan budget deal on Tuesday, virtually assuring passage of a bill that sets spending caps and reduces prospects of a government shutdown in 2014.

The bill, which has already won House approval, cleared a Senate procedural hurdle by 67 votes to 33 and is now expected to pass Congress Wednesday before the year-end recess.

President Barack Obama will sign the deal into law, which increases the $967 billion cap for 2013 spending to $1.012 trillion next year, and brings some normalcy to a process recently rocked by chaos.

Obama’s spokesman Jay Carney interpreted the progress as “some glimmers of hope that there might be a willingness to cooperate in a bipartisan way that we haven’t seen recently.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid hailed “a vote against extremism,” in an nod to the conservative groups that were blamed for torpedoing a deal to prevent a government shutdown in October.

Passage will allow lawmakers to spend their holiday break crafting spending plans for government agencies such as the defense and agriculture departments.

Those appropriations must be agreed by January 15 to avoid another government shutdown.

The deal received support from all Democrats and 12 Republicans, a bigger than expected number given the opposition voiced by conservatives who feel it fails to sufficiently rein in federal spending.

Reid said a vote on final passage, which requires a simple majority in the 100-seat chamber, will take place on Wednesday.

The deal is a modest one. It eliminates $63 billion in the automatic spending cuts known in Washington as sequestration, and reduces the deficit by about $23 billion.

The accord does not close tax loopholes or include an extension of unemployment benefits, something Democrats have complained bitterly about.

Nor does it address reform of entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, long sought by Republicans.

And it notably does not extend the debt ceiling, which Washington needs to raise by February if it wants to avoid a dangerous credit default.

“This bill is a compromise and that means neither side got everything we wanted,” Senate Budget Committee chairwoman Patty Murray told her colleagues.

But it “takes the first steps toward rebuilding our broken budget process.”

Washington has been embroiled in a near-constant cycle of fiscal warfare since 2011, when a grand bargain between Obama and Republicans collapsed.

The gridlock came to a head in October, when the feuding parties failed to agree on a budget and plunged the government into a costly, 16-day shutdown.

Senator Mike Enzi encapsulated the concerns of many Republicans, complaining that the latest deal busts through spending limits set by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and only “promises” to cut future spending as far down the track as 2022.

“We’ve seen how that story ends,” Enzi said. “Ultimately the spending cuts will never materialize.”

But a spirited Senator John McCain took to the floor warning that voting down the budget deal would reckless posturing.

“If you got a better idea, bring it up,” he told fellow Republicans. “Because the only alternative to this right now is a government shutdown.”

The new spending on defense and domestic programs is offset by raising the amount new federal workers must contribute to their retirement plans, and boosting air travel fees to the Transportation Security Administration.

With the House of Representatives already on recess until 2014, the Senate is racing to conclude its business this week before it goes on break.

“We have a lot to do before Christmas, but we can get it done. We just need a little bit of cooperation from Republicans,” Reid said.

Lawmakers will consider a huge defense spending bill as well as a raft of executive nominees including Janet Yellen, Obama’s pick to head the Federal Reserve.

Current Fed chairman Ben Bernanke steps down on January 31 after eight years in the job.


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