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House approves budget blueprint dubbed 'good deal for defense'

Dec. 12, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
By JOHN T. BENNETT   |   Comments
Boehner, GOP Leaders Speak To Media After Republic
Chairman of the House Budget Committee Rep. Paul Ryan. (Getty Images)
Chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee Sen. Patty Murray. / Getty Images

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WASHINGTON — For the first time since 2009, the House has approved a bipartisan budget plan that dulls sequestration’s “meat ax” — but the plan is expected to meet more resistance in the Senate.

The GOP-controlled lower chamber on Thursday voted 333-94 to send the sweeping spending and deficit-reduction plan crafted by the chairs of the House and Senate Budget committees, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to the upper chamber. Sixty-two Republicans voted against it, joined by 32 Democrats.

Some lawmakers and pundits say the fact Ryan and Murray were able to even agree to a plan and then shepherd it through the House possibly signals a slow turn toward increased cooperation and deal-cutting after four years of partisan gridlock.

If approved next week by the Senate, it would set 2014 and 2015 spending levels, lessen defense and domestic sequester cuts in both years, and allow congressional appropriators to begin writing annual department spending bills.

As they strolled into the House chamber for a procedural vote earlier in the day, several pro-defense members signaled their support of the budget resolution.

House Armed Services Committee Vice Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, told Defense News he would vote in favor of it, calling it “a good deal for defense.”

HASC Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., also said he would vote yes, saying the temporary sequester relief it proposes “was the best deal he [Ryan] could have got.”

“We need to pass a budget,” HASC Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said on the floor. “You cannot function as well as you should … if you do not pass a budget. ... It’s critical that we pass the budget.”

'Poisonous' Senate

But it remains unclear whether it can pass the Senate, where Republicans and Democrats see plenty to dislike.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told reporters Thursday morning he will vote for the budget resolution despite provisions such as proposed changes to military personnel benefits.

“Look, at some point, we were going to have to adjust the retirement and TriCare — that’s not a reason not to do this,” McCain aid.

Another reason the Ryan-Murray deal might have a tougher road to passage in the Senate is the chamber’s ongoing partisan war over its rules and Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid’s handling of GOP amendments.

“The atmosphere around here is more poisonous than I’ve ever seen it,” McCain said.

But he acknowledged some of his GOP colleagues are opposed.

“It is not anything I could support,” Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program Wednesday. “We are going to raise spending back up because the political powers that be want to spend more money rather than be responsible with what we know needs to be done up here, which is hard work eliminating all the stupidity, fraud and duplication that is going on.

“He [Ryan] has led to make a compromise that sells out what actually needs to be done. He was told to lead a compromise,” Coburn said. “A compromise is going to give up your principles.”

Ryan disagrees with such allegations, and has subtly urged his GOP colleagues to support the resolution.

“As a conservative ... I get more deficit reduction than if we did nothing,” Ryan said Tuesday evening, adding the plan upholds GOP principles because it does not propose tax hikes.

Senate Democrats also have issues with the Ryan-Murray spending and deficit plan.

“I’d like to vote for it,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., told reporters Thursday morning.

“A lot of [Democrats] are very much concerned about the unemployment issue,” Levin said. “The [unemployment] benefits that are running out, that’s one of the biggest concerns that I have.”

House Budget Committee member Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., voted against the deal, earlier in the day calling it “terrible” and “small potatoes.”

'Doesn't Solve Everything'

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and US weapons manufacturers have endorsed the deal, which they cast as imperfect but better than existing law.

“While a broader budget deal that would have eliminated sequestration altogether would have been ideal, we recognize the significant efforts that went into reaching this agreement for the next two years,” Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) President and CEO Marion Blakey said in a statement issued about two hours before the House vote.

“We are also pleased that not only will this provide some sequestration relief, allowing at least some essential programs to go forward, [but] it will also allow the appropriations process to proceed and develop a real budget for the remainder of this fiscal year and next so that a long-term [continuing resolution] is not necessary,” Blakey said.

In a statement, Hagel acknowledged “this agreement doesn’t solve every budget problem facing the Department of Defense.” But, he added, “it will help address our military readiness challenge by restoring funding for training and procurement — especially in fiscal year 2014.”

One defense industry lobbyist called the Ryan-Murray deal “the smallest of the small deals.”

House Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., told reporters Wednesday she believes it is “absolutely outrageous … that millions of people won’t be getting unemployment benefits.”

Still, she called the Ryan-Murray plan “the best deal that we can do at this point.”

Analysts were mixed on the measure, with some breaking along ideological lines. Conservative experts say it raises federal spending too much; liberal analysts blasted it for excluding things like unemployment benefits. And more middle-of-the road experts called it the best deal Ryan and Murray could get through both chambers.

“The budget agreement … makes plenty of choices — many of them good, others less so — but the sum total of their choices results in a package that moves the country in a positive direction,” Harry Stein and Michael Linden of the Center for American Progress wrote in a white paper. “The Murray-Ryan deal would, for the time being, put the seemingly constant fiscal crises to rest and roll back some of the damaging austerity spending cuts that have been undermining the economic recovery.”

'Good News'

Industry consultant and Lexington Institute COO Loren Thompson called it “good news for the defense industry.”

“It would avert another shutdown of the industry’s government customer, remove the fiscal strait-jacket of a continuing resolution, and raise the caps on military spending imposed by the sequestration provisions of the 2011 Budget Control Act,” said Thompson.

“That doesn’t mean happy days are here again for the sector,” he said, “but it does suggest that the worst fears industry executives harbored concerning deficit reduction are less likely to materialize.”

Nora Bensahel of the Center for a New American Security described the deal as a mixed bag for the Defense Department.

“If passed, the budget deal would enable the services to increase the funds available for training and readiness, which would be indisputably valuable,” said Bensahel. “Yet it would not relieve the services from having to make very hard budget choices. Even with the additional $22 billion, DoD will still have to cut $32 billion from its original budget request of $552 billion, or approximately 5.7 percent.”

The conservative Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) dubbed the deal “an essential first step in the right direction.”

“But much more needs to be done,” FPI’s board said in a statement. “It restores only some of the previously planned defense spending in fiscal years 2014 and 2015. It leaves untouched further defense cuts between fiscal years 2016 and 2021.”

Deal's Mechanics

Here’s how, if approved next week by the Senate, the deal would work:

The Ryan-Murray deal would provide $63 billion in sequestration relief in 2014 and 2015, which would be split evenly among defense and non-defense discretionary accounts.

For the Defense Department, that would come to about $31 billion in sequester relief over the next two years.

The 2014 relief would total $45 billion, meaning the Pentagon would get back about $22.5 billion. In 2015, the relief would amount to around $18 billion total, with $9 billion for the Pentagon.

Its authors say it also would provide more than $20 billion in new deficit-reduction items.

“The sequester relief is fully offset by savings elsewhere in the budget,” Ryan’s House Budget Committee said in a statement. “The agreement includes dozens of specific deficit-reduction provisions, with mandatory savings and non-tax revenue totaling approximately $85 billion. The agreement would reduce the deficit by between $20 and $23 billion.”

Addressing reporters on Tuesday evening, Ryan cast the bill as a victory for conservatives, saying it proposes almost $25 billion more in deficit reduction than is called for under the 2011 Budget Control Act, which created sequestration.

The deal targets the “auto-pilot side” of the federal budget while cutting less from the defense side, Ryan said.

Partisan Thaw?

More broadly, some longtime lawmakers and analysts hope the deal — if it passes both chambers with Republican and Democratic votes — signals a thawing in Washington’s utter dysfunction.

“It looks that way,” said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. “Anytime you get those two personalities to agree to something so complex, I would say that is a trend toward bipartisanship.”

Thompson said the deal offers “the faint glimmer of hope if both chambers embrace the proposed budget accord that the parties are learning how to compromise again.

“The defense industry would very much like to see a return to normalcy in federal budget processes,” he added.

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