WASHINGTON – Congressional negotiators reached a modest budget agreement Tuesday to restore about $63 billion in automatic spending cuts from programs ranging from parks to the Pentagon, with votes expected in both houses in the next several days.
Officials said the increases would be offset by a variety of spending reductions and increased fees elsewhere in the budget totaling about $85 billion during a decade, leaving enough for a largely symbolic cut of more than $20 billion in the country’s $17 trillion debt.
The deal “reduces the deficit by $23 billion and it does not raise taxes. It cuts spending in a smarter way” than the ones in effect, said Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who chairs the House Budget Committee and was his party’s negotiator in several weeks of secretive talks.
His Democratic counterpart, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, said, “We have broken through the partisanship and gridlock” that could have produced a government shutdown in January.
The offsetting deficit cuts include a requirement for newly hired federal workers to make larger contributions to their own pensions, as well as an increase in a federal airport security fee that would add $5 to the cost of a typical round-trip flight. Also included were unspecified savings from military retirement programs.
Officials said Democrats had failed in their bid to include an extension of benefits for workers unemployed longer than 26 weeks. The program expires on Dec. 28, when payments will be cut off for an estimated 1.3 million individuals.
Congressional aides predicted bipartisan approval in both houses, despite grumbling from liberals about the omission of the unemployment extension, and even though tea party-aligned groups have already begun pushing Republican conservatives to oppose it.
The budget deal was one of a handful of measures left on Congress’ to-do list near the end of a year that produced little by way of compromise.
Conservative organizations attacked the proposal as a betrayal of a hard-won 2011 agreement that reduced government spending and is counted as among the main accomplishments of tea party-aligned Republicans who came to power earlier the same year in the House.
Given the internal GOP divisions in the House, Speaker John Boehner is likely to need Democratic votes to approve any deal by Ryan and Murray. It was not immediately clear how many Democratic lawmakers would support a plan that lacked an extension of unemployment benefits.
Some Democratic officials suggested a possible two-step solution. It included swift passage of any budget agreement that emerges, and then adding an extension of unemployment benefits to must-pass legislation early next year, perhaps a measure to reverse a looming cut in payments to doctors who treat Medicare patients.
The bipartisan push for a budget agreement stems from automatic cuts that are themselves the consequence of divided government’s ability to complete a sweeping deficit reduction package in 2011.
If left in place, the reductions would carve $91 billion from the day-to-day budgets of the Pentagon and domestic agencies when compared with spending limits set by the hard-fought 2011 budget agreement.
Support for a deal to ease the reductions is strongest in Congress among defense hawks in both houses and both parties who fear the effect on military readiness from a looming $20 billion cut in Pentagon spending.
The White House wants a deal for a same reason, but also to ease the effect of automatic cuts on domestic programs from education to transportation to the national parks.
While an agreement would have little impact on deficits, it holds the potential for avoiding politically charged budget clashes for the next year or two.
The addition of $45 billion in spending for the current fiscal year and $20 billion for the following budget deal would permit the two houses to agree on levels for annual appropriations bill, easing the threat of veto showdowns of the type that can lead into partial government shutdowns.
Officials said the framework under discussion would raise overall spending on general government programs to $1.012 trillion in the current budget year, compared with $967 billion under existing law.
Even though that represents a two-year increase of about $65 billion, it is below the limits envisioned before the across-the-board cuts began taking effect.