Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, is backing Washington's first bipartisan budget deal in years, saying that 'if you're for more deficit reduction, you're for this agreement.' (Jim Watson / AFP)
WASHINGTON — Senior US lawmakers’ lukewarm reception of Washington’s first bipartisan budget deal in years showed its path to final passage is riddled with political and ideological landmines.
Less than 24 hours after Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., rolled out a budget blueprint that would, among other things, hand the Defense Department $31 billion in sequester relief, House Republicans and Democrats signaled finding 218 votes will be difficult.
House GOP and Democratic leaders on Wednesday often talked about the deal, which its authors say would also provide over $20 billion in new deficit-reduction items, in lukewarm tones. And that was when they talked about it at all.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., did not come close to endorsing the budget plan.
“Our members will make their own decisions,” Pelosi told reporters. “We would have preferred something quite differently.”
To that end, she said House Budget Committee Ranking Member Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., a member of the bicameral conference panel, presented a spending plan during the closed-door talks that “was quite different.”
House Democratic leaders and rank-and-file members wanted a spending compromise that “supported [economic] growth” and would “extend unemployment benefits,” she said.
In the most telling comment of her remarks Wednesday morning, Pelosi slammed the conference committee for excluding unemployment benefits so many Democrats support from the deal.
“It’s absolutely unconscionable that we would leave Washington, D.C. without restoring [them],” a visibly angry Pelosi said, suggesting House Republicans should allow an amendment on the floor to do just that.
In his prepared remarks at a separate press conference about an hour later, GOP House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio did not mention the Ryan-Murray deal.
As a handful of other House GOP leaders took to the microphone after Boehner, none mentioned the budget deal.
That chilly response left Ryan as the Wednesday morning press conference’s lone salesman in favor of the plan. He repeated his belief that the resolution is a sign that compromise is possible in this environment, and expressed confidence some GOP members will support it. But his colleagues’ collective silence suggested otherwise.
Immediate opposition to the deal from outside conservative organizations came swiftly.
“In the coming days, members of Congress will have to explain to their constituents what exactly they achieved by increasing spending, increasing fees and offering up another round of promises waiting to be broken,” Michael Needham, CEO of the powerful Heritage Action group, said in a USA Today op-ed released Tuesday evening. “That will be a tough sell back home.”
Heritage Action has significant sway with uber-conservative House Republicans and moderate ones eager for its campaign assistance. Needham called the Ryan-Murray plan “a step backward” and said it would be “an immediate increase in federal spending,” panning it for failing to “provide a real and sustained fix for President [Barack] Obama's mismanagement of defense.”
He also criticized it for replacing defense and non-defense sequester cuts with only vague promises of other cuts down the road.
Boehner slammed Heritage Action and other groups, saying they are “using our members — and they're using the American people — for their own goals. This is ridiculous.”
“Listen, if you're for more deficit reduction,” Boehner said sternly, “you're for this agreement.”
That was the closest any GOP leader came to endorsing what Ryan and Murray produced.
On Tuesday evening, however, Ryan said the deal’s proposed sequester-replacement items would be “permanent reforms on the autopilot side of the spending ledger in excess of the sequester relief, which results in ... deficit reduction.”
What Needham told GOP members is a “step backward,” Ryan tried to sell as “a clear improvement on the status quo.”
To be sure, rank-and-file House Democrats also are far from satisfied with the spending plan.
House Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., told reporters she believes it is “absolutely outrageous … that millions of people won’t be getting unemployment benefits.”
Still, she seemed prepared to put aside such ideological and policy concerns and vote for the deal when it hits the House floor later this week.
“We will be able to write [annual] appropriations bills,” Lowey said. “This is the best deal that we can do at this point.”
USAF Chief: 'Anything is better than where we are'
Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute this morning, Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force Chief of Staff, indicated cautious optimism on the announced deal.
“I’m glad we have an agreement that’s out there for the Hill to hopefully vote on. Anything is better than where we are right now,” Welsh said. “Right now, we have no fixed variables. Everything is a variable. There is nothing that we can anchor our planning, our way forward, on.”
Welsh was clear that sequestration remains an challenge, but the proposed deal would allow the service to manage short-term capability versus long-term budget challenges for coming years.
“Even knowing that for the next two years we have a firm number would be very helpful. It won’t change the long term impact of sequestration, but it would allow us to mitigate the near-term readiness problem a little bit,” Welsh said. “If we want to modernize at all, and we believe we have to, to be viable 10-15 years from now, we have to take money out of readiness to do it. This allows us to keep more money in readiness so we have more capability to respond to a contingency.”
“From a service perspective, this would allow us to figure out how we make reasonable force structure reductions and even personnel reductions in the first two years to kind of balance our readiness options for [FY17] and out,” Welsh continued. “Anything that allows us to use a little more common sense will be helpful to us, and I think this will be a step in the right direction.”
Service officials have stated that in order to meet sequestration budget levels, they must cut whole platforms from the fleet. But the Air Force has already met resistance on the Hill over potential cuts to the A-10 and KC-10 platforms, something Welsh indicated puts the service in a “surreal” position.
“I find myself arguing to get rid of things that I don’t want to get rid of to pay a bill we’ve been handed, and the people telling me I can’t give up anything to pay it are the people who gave us the bill. It’s a strange situation,” said Welsh. “You can’t continue to defend everything and pay a 1.3 trillion dollar bill. It won’t work.”
Asked whether he thought Congress would come to grips with the need to cut platforms, Welsh demurred.
“You’ll have to ask the Hill. I can’t answer that question for you,” he said. “There is a reality to the $1.3 trillion bill that’s hard to avoid. It’s going to leave a bruise. We’re going to get to the point where we have to create savings somehow, and I am all ears if someone has other ideas. But the money is coming out of force structure, readiness, and modernization.”
Jon Kyl, the former Republican Senator from Arizona who was hosting the event, struck an optimistic tone over the budget deal.
“You’ll always have the parochial fights on Capitol Hill,” Kyl said. “But eventually they have to listen to the best advice they can about squeezing that square peg into a round hole of the budget, and they’re the ones responsible for the budget.”
“So eventually after the parochial fights, you have to come to some resolution,” and Congress understands that, he added.