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Budget Deal Poised for Narrow Approval in Senate

Budget Deal Poised for Narrow Approval in Senate

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - December 16, 2013

The bipartisan budget deal that sailed through the House of Representatives last week faces a key hurdle Tuesday in the Senate, where affirmative votes will be precious.

The bill appears poised to clear that first procedural bar -- but perhaps just barely. The search over the past few days for 60 yeas on cloture -- Senate-speak for closing debate on the bill -- has underscored an interesting behavior swap recently between the two legislative bodies, as the bill had an easier go of it in the House.

Its arrival in the Senate comes after lawmakers there have engaged in dramatic, all-night machinations over an end-of-year rush to confirm stalled executive nominees, the upshot of an unprecedented rules change that cleared the way for such votes. The Senate is expected to recess by week’s end, and must get through the budget and a defense authorization bill, among other matters, by that time.

Final passage of the budget bill -- an agreement forged by GOP Rep. Paul Ryan and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray -- is expected this week and would cap something of an exotic month in the Senate, which had been the more predictable and civil of the two chambers throughout this legislative year.

The obstacles facing the measure this week expose how differently it is perceived in both legislative bodies.

The bill passed the House with a strong bipartisan showing, 332-94. But that chamber was Ryan’s court, and the legislation was welcomed by GOP leaders there; Democrats, on the others hand, were initially reluctant to back a measure that didn’t extend emergency unemployment benefits that will expire at the end of the year, though Nancy Pelosi ultimately urged her colleagues to vote yes.

But over in the Senate, many Republicans appear to view the bill in relation to Budget Committee chair Patty Murray, a Democrat. GOP leaders there have come out against the agreement, mostly opposed to its top-line number: The bill sets spending levels for the current and following fiscal years at just over $1 trillion, an increase from levels set in the 2011 Budget Control Act. The increase comes from reversing two-years’ worth of sequester cuts.

GOP senators such as Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Bob Corker of Tennessee, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire -- who have broken ranks with their colleagues on other issues to end gridlock -- are against this bill. Graham cited its cuts to military pensions and Ayotte cited the top-line figure.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who helped forge the October deal to re-open the government, will oppose this bill because of the increased spending caps. But he has been relatively quiet so as not to visibly undermine Ryan.

More than a dozen GOP senators are up for re-election in 2014, including some who face primary challenges the right, which could deter their support for the bill. Conservative outside groups have been strongly opposed to the deal -- opposition that triggered a remarkable rebuke last week from House Speaker John Boehner.

Potential 2016 presidential candidates Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz have slammed the bill, setting up a notable push-back from Ryan, another potential presidential hopeful, who urged them to read the legislation first “and get back to me.”

But Republicans aren’t the only ones ill at ease with the measure. Senate liberals Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Tom Harkin of Iowa are undecided about the bill, given that it lacks the unemployment benefits extension, though they are likely to vote for cloture on Tuesday. (Majority Leader Harry Reid has promised to take up the benefits issue separately at the beginning of next year, and retroactively apply the assistance.)

Senate Whip Dick Durbin said on Sunday that Democrats need about eight Republicans to sign on to the deal, signaling likely Democratic defections. One day later, however, it appeared that fewer will be required.

Republican North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr reneged Monday night on his earlier support for the cloture vote, saying that he would oppose moving forward with the measure. Though Burr's move tightened the likely vote, the bill nonetheless picked up steam on Monday. 

Republican Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Orrin Hatch of Utah each delivered some crucial backing this week by announcing they will vote in favor. “Although I disagree with a number of provisions in the bill, on balance the good outweighs the bad,” Johnson said. Hatch noted Monday that the agreement “isn’t everything I’d hoped it would be, and it isn’t what I would have written. But sometimes the answer has to be yes."

John McCain voiced support too, telling CNN on Sunday, "We must not shut down the government again."

Others, including Jeff Flake of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine, and Corker, have indicated they will vote for cloture on Tuesday even if they don’t support final passage of the measure.  Once the bill clears that first hurdle, however, only a simple majority will be required for passage. 

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer predicted Monday that the budget bill would ultimately pass. “I think it’s a pretty safe bet,” he said on MSNBC . “The House for the first time stepped up to the bipartisan plate. I think this was a breakthrough. Why? What’s held things up for the last while is the Tea Party faction in the House, which blocked basically everything.” 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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