A rare bipartisan budget deal aimed at averting another government shutdown cleared its biggest remaining political hurdle Tuesday, ending the best chance opponents had of killing the compromise and worsening tensions between the Republican Party’s tea party wing and establishment conservatives.
A dozen Republican senators — more than some had anticipated—bucked party leaders and joined with Democrats to vote 67-33 to overcome a GOP filibuster threat, setting the stage for final passage in the Democratic-controlled body on Wednesday.
In agreeing to the $85-billion compromise, which the House overwhelmingly approved last week, lawmakers from both parties expressed hope for a cooling-off period in the budget wars that have crippled Washington for more than two years.
“I voted in favor of it because it’s the right thing to do,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. He made up his mind after hearing from constituents while attending church Sunday and later shopping at a mall, he said. “I was surprised how many people said, ‘Thank goodness you have found an agreement.... Finally you guys have gotten your act together.’”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., expressed optimism about the robust bipartisan vote. “Gridlock has got to end, and it is ending,” he said. “To have a significant number of Republicans in the House and in the Senate vote against extremism is a step forward.”
But the Republican defections worsened the schism inside the GOP. Tea party organizations exerted strong pressure on Republicans to reject the budget deal because it would allow government spending to rise. Their influence was particularly apparent in states where Republican senators face primary challenges in next year’s midterm elections.
The Senate’s top two Republican leaders, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and GOP Whip John Cornyn of Texas, voted against the deal. Both face primary challengers in 2014.
McConnell’s main GOP opponent, Matt Bevin, scolded the Republican leader for waiting until the 11th hour to announce his position.
Cornyn’s challenger, Republican Rep. Steve Stockman, was fundraising Tuesday as an alternative to what he derided as the Senate’s “quisling Republicans” — those who collaborate with the enemy, in other words.
Another senator who faces several primary challengers, Lindsey Graham , R-S.C., also opposed the deal, citing a provision cutting retirement pay for younger, uninjured military retirees.
“To me, in our effort to become functional, we have lost our way and, quite frankly, lost our soul,” Graham said. “If we fail today, we’re going to come back at this tomorrow and over and over again until the Congress finds its soul.”
Almost none of the 12 Republican senators who voted for the deal face tough primary challenges, and at least one is retiring. Some said they supported the compromise despite frustration with its final terms.
“There is a heavy sigh going in our conference right now,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who survived her own tea party challenge some years ago. She voted Tuesday to advance what she characterized as an imperfect bill.
President Barack Obama is expected to swiftly sign the legislation once it clears the Senate, but Congress must revisit the issue once more to avoid a government shutdown next month.
Funding for the government runs out Jan. 15, and Congress will need to pass a measure to fund it at the levels agreed to in the budget deal — providing one last opportunity for tea party conservatives to exert influence.
Bob Stevenson, a former top Republican Senate aide who is now a GOP consultant, predicted the deal would keep the government operating. “You’ve got an agreement that nobody is excited about, nobody’s jumping up and down about,” he said. “But you got an agreement.”
The compromise struck by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the party’s former vice presidential nominee, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the budget committee chairman, would increase spending by $63 billion over two years, rolling back some of the so-called sequester cuts to the Pentagon and social programs that would have taken effect next month. Many in the GOP see those automatic cuts as their most tangible accomplishment in recent budget battles.
No new taxes are included, as Republicans had insisted. But new fees would be imposed on airline travel, and cuts would be made elsewhere in the federal budget, including reductions to pensions for newly hired federal workers and some military retirees. More than $22 billion would be applied to deficit reduction.
Standard & Poor’s, the ratings agency, said Tuesday that it expects the deal “to be positive for the economy.” But the agency said it will not be changing its outlook on U.S. debt, which suffered a rare downgrade after a 2011 congressional budget standoff.
The Senate pushed backed a procedural attempt later Tuesday to undo the cuts to military retirees, an issue that the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said would be reviewed next year.
Although the establishment wing of the Republican Party may have won this round, conservative groups, including Americans for Prosperity, the organization backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, vowed to continue fighting to cut federal spending.