WASHINGTON (MCT) – The House overwhelmingly approved a budget deal Thursday designed to avert another government shutdown, a rare bipartisan accord that breaks with the tea-party-driven cycle of brinkmanship and could signal a new era of political pragmatism in Congress.
The agreement represents a victory for House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, who appears to have regained at least momentary control of his rebellious majority and turned back the super-sized influence of outside conservative groups. It also boosts Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., a potential 2016 Republican presidential hopeful, who put his political capital on the line to craft the deal with his Democratic budgetary counterpart, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state.
Whether the spirit of detente will extend into next year is uncertain. Congress will need to give the $85 billion package final approval next month to avert a shutdown on Jan. 15, and will then turn to the debate over whether to raise the nation's debt limit, a divisive issue.
The measure was approved, 332 to 94, by most Republicans and Democrats over the objection of 62 Republicans, mostly hard-line conservatives, and 32 Democrats, who opposed it because it did not extend long-term unemployment insurance.
The Senate is expected to pass the measure in coming days despite opposition from tea party Republicans and a possible no vote from the GOP minority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
House conservatives have frequently bucked Boehner on budget deals, leading to the 16-day government shutdown in October that left Republicans badly damaged in polls. But most appeared to have lost their desire to push budget battles to the brink.
"I'm not going to go home and beat my chest that it's the best we could've done; I'm also not ashamed," said freshman Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C. In the future, he said, "We're going to look for the art of the possible."
Even as House leaders welcomed the breakthrough after months of dysfunction, they downplayed the modest deal from a Congress whose approval ratings have plummeted to all-time lows.
"There were a lot of lessons learned over the course of this year, a lot of lessons learned over the course of the last three years, and I actually do feel like we're in a better place," Boehner said. "We're going to deal with these issues one at a time. The goal today is to get this budget agreement passed. We'll deal with the debt ceiling when we get there."
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader from San Francisco who delivered Democratic support to ensure passage, cautioned against reading too much into a deal that is so far from the sweeping agreement that both sides once sought.
"Certainly, not achieving this would not have been a good signal," Pelosi said, "but I don't under- or overestimate the power of this one event today."
The $85 billion accord increases spending levels for the next two fiscal years beyond what conservatives wanted but less than Democrats had sought.
It reverses $63 billion of the automatic "sequester" cuts that were opposed by all but the most conservative lawmakers. Those steep cuts were opposed by an unlikely alliance of defense hawks and Democrats who compromised to spare both the Pentagon and social programs.
To attract conservatives, the deal puts more than $22 billion toward deficit reduction and includes no new taxes. The increased spending is paid for with changes over the next decade that include new fees, such as on airline travel, and pension reductions for new federal employees and uninjured military retirees under 62.
At the last minute, Republicans tacked on a provision to prevent a scheduled cut in pay for doctors who treat Medicare patients.
Many Republicans have decided their efforts should be directed elsewhere – namely, fighting President Barack Obama's health care law – rather than revisiting the budget wars that have defined the last several years.
"We can aim at Obamacare," said Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas. "I'd sooner that be the discussion than about whether we're giving in to a government shutdown."
Not all Republicans are on board with the shift toward pragmatism or Boehner's push-back against the heavy-handed lobbying from conservative groups that has swayed lawmakers to block past deals.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., another potential presidential contender in 2016, said the agreement "continues Washington's irresponsible budgeting decisions by spending more money than the government takes in."
Passage was not without a last-minute floor battle: Democrats protested the exclusion of long-term unemployment insurance for 1.3 million jobless Americans, whose benefits expire on Dec. 28.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., vowed that extending jobless aid would be the first item for consideration when Congress resumes in the new year.