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Emerging Budget Deal Keeps Senate Democrats Guessing

Reid gestures at a news conference with Senate Democratic leadership team. (Al Drago, CQ Roll Call file photo)
Reid gestures at a news conference with Senate Democratic leadership team. (Al Drago, CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senior Senate Democrats are optimistic that a sweeping fiscal pact soon could be finalized, but their concerns about the emerging plan show it’s not a done deal just yet.  

Congressional leaders are preparing to unveil a fiscal package that would raise the debt ceiling until March 2017, while also raising defense and domestic spending caps known colloquially as sequestration. The package also would address Medicare Part B by shielding millions of seniors from significant increases to their health insurance premiums and deductibles.  

Republican and Democratic leaders in both chambers and the White House are racing to pass at least the debt ceiling part of the package before Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, retires at the end of this week. Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota told reporters it has not yet been decided whether the borrowing limit and spending plan pieces would be married in one vehicle or moved separately through both chambers.  

There is plenty for Democrats to like in the aspects of the deal that have emerged so far, including tens of billions more in fiscal 2016 and possibly 2017 for the party’s prized domestic programs. But several top Democrats expressed concerns Monday.  

“What happened to the riders? What are they going to do about Social Security and disability?” asked Richard J. Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat. “What’s going to happen to Medicaid?”  

His comments to reporters came after Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., took to the floor to raise a concern highlighted earlier Monday by the White House.  

“It is imperative that we avoid yet another manufactured crisis that threatens the American economy and jobs. But we must do it in a responsible manner,” said Reid, repeating his call for doing away with sequester cuts and ensuring “there are equal defense and non-defense increases.”  

Senate Democrats for months have said using the Pentagon’s controversial war-funding account to increase the military’s annual budget, as the GOP did in its fiscal 2016 budget resolution, amounts to irresponsible budgeting. That’s because, Democrats argue, the war spending is not subject to existing budget caps.  

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest a few hours earlier reiterated the White House’s long-held stance that any deal not simply increase military spending — either in full or in part — by merely inflating its war account known officially as the Overseas Contingency Operations fund.  

But, notably, Earnest did not say President Barack Obama would veto a budget plan that used the war account to boost military spending.  

Senate Democratic Policy Chairman Charles E. Schumer of New York said he is “glad” lawmakers and the White House are “negotiating very seriously  it’s what we’ve asked for all along.” But he did not endorse the emerging aspects of the deal, with details still unknown.  

Senate Appropriations Committee ranking Democrat Barbara Mikulski of Maryland said “the negotiations have been promising.”  

She and other Democrats for months have called for a deal that would provide two years of relief from the budget caps. She described that part of the package as “heartening.”  

She also said she’s upbeat about the deal’s “middle ground in terms of lifting the caps.” But Mikulski also cautioned during a brief interview with CQ Roll Call that “it’s still fluid.”  

Lawmakers and aides signaled the coming package likely would move quickly through both chambers, though none could map out a timeline for when floor votes might be scheduled.

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