WASHINGTON — A modest, bipartisan budget pact designed to keep Washington from lurching from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis and to ease the harshest effects of automatic budget cuts is on the brink of passing the Senate Wednesday despite increasing political heat over a proposal to curb the growth of the pensions claimed by working age military retirees.
The Senate is on track to clear the bill for President Barack Obama's signature after a 67-33 vote Tuesday in which it easily hurdled a filibuster threshold.
The measure would restore $45 billion, half the amount scheduled to be automatically cut from the 2014 operating budgets of the Pentagon and some domestic agencies, lifting them above $1 trillion. An additional $18 billion for 2015 would provide enough relief to essentially freeze spending at those levels for the year.
The bill advanced with the help of 12 Republicans, several of whom promised to oppose the measure in Wednesday's final vote because it fails to take on the nation's most pressing fiscal challenges. It would barely dent deficits that are predicted to lessen in the short term but grow larger by the end of the decade and into the next.
One provision, cutting the inflation increases of pensions for military retirees under the age of 62, was proving to be especially unpopular. Members of the military are eligible to retire after 20 years at half pay. The provision was included in the bill at the direction of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
"We had to look at how we could find compromises," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., who negotiated the bill with Ryan. "There's things in this I like and there's things I don't like."
The deal is a step toward restoring the trust of Americans who feel their government isn't working, and also toward restoring lawmakers' faith in each other, Murray told CNN on Wednesday.
Top Democrats said they would revisit the change in military pensions, which raises $6 billion over 10 years, before it takes effect in two years. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said the cut could reduce by $80,000 the lifetime benefit of a soldier who retires in his or her early 40s.
In a document defending the cut, Ryan's staff called pensions to middle-aged military retirees "an exceptionally generous benefit, often providing 40 years of pension payment in return for 20 years of service" and noted that "most begin a second career after leaving the military." Ryan's proposal would reduce the cost-of-living increase by one percentage point below inflation for the years before a pension recipient reaches 62. At that age, a "catch up" provision would restore the pension to where it would have been with full inflation increases.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the former prisoner of war, was among the few willing to defend the benefit cut, which has drawn howls of protest from senators with large military presences in their states and has vulnerable Democrats squirming.
"We cannot have continued increases in costs and benefits forever because of our inability to fund our national security," McCain said. "In other words, the dramatic increase in personnel and benefit costs are such that we really aren't going to have money left over for the mission, the equipment, and the capabilities." McCain noted that many of those objecting to the pension benefit cut embraced the recommendations of the 2010 deficit panel chaired by former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, which proposed to eliminate the cost-of-living benefit entirely until age 62.
More representative, however, were endangered Democrats like Mark Pryor of Arkansas, deadlocked with GOP Rep. Tom Cotton in an already heated campaign, who promised support for revisiting the pension provision before if takes effect in two years. "We cannot balance the budget on the backs of our hardworking military members and their families," Pryor said. "These heroes lay their lives on the line for us and they deserve us to work to fix this provision so that they can receive the full benefits that they've earned."
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who also faces a potentially tough re-election campaign next year, promptly announced she would seek to repeal the military pension cut and immediately won backing of other Democrats facing difficult races next year.
The bill caps a sometimes chaotic year in Washington that began with a January deal to avert a "fiscal cliff" of automatic spending cuts and expiring Bush-era tax cuts. The year also featured brinksmanship over the federal debt limit and a 16-day partial shutdown of the government sparked by Republicans in a futile attempt to curb implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
The budget agreement allows lawmakers to claim a modest accomplishment as they leave a bitterly divided Washington.
It sets the stage in January for the pragmatic-minded House and Senate Appropriations committees to draft a trillion-dollar-plus omnibus spending bill combining the 12 annual appropriations bills for the budget year that began Oct. 1. It would provide $1.012 trillion for the fiscal 2014 year already underway, a $45 billion increase over what would be required under the penalty imposed by a 2011 budget deal.
Agency budgets totaled $986 billion in 2013 after automatic cuts called sequestration were imposed, causing numerous furloughs, harming military readiness and cutting grants to local school districts, health researchers and providers of Head Start preschool care to low-income children, among numerous effects.
Due to the design of the automatic cuts, even with the boost the Pentagon still would see its non-war 2014 budget essentially frozen at 2013 levels, while domestic agencies would see an increase of about 4 percent. But those levels remain well below what was envisioned in the 2011 budget pact.
The cuts would be replaced with money from things such as higher airline security fees, a requirement that new federal workers pay more toward their pensions, the 1-percentage-point cut in the pensions of working-age military retirees and premium increases on companies whose pension plans are insured by the federal government.
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