Updated 5:22 a.m., Oct. 30 | The Senate sent to President Barack Obama a massive fiscal package early Friday morning that averts a U.S. debt default and raises spending caps.
The chamber worked into the wee hours of the morning as senators cleared a key procedural hurdle, 63-35, and then passed the sweeping budget deal in a 64-35 vote that also suspends the debt limit into 2017. Before the final vote, GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky spoke for about an hour.
For much of the year, Republicans seemed to possess most of the leverage for the inevitable end-of-year budget talks with congressional Democrats and the Obama administration. But Washington’s tectonic plates shifted on Sept. 25, when then-Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, announced he would vacate his gavel and leave Congress at the end of October.
With that shocking development, Boehner gave up more than his gavel. Some Republicans believe he also handed Obama and his Democratic colleagues on Capitol Hill the upper hand in the fiscal talks.
“It’s just more and more money,” Senate Banking Chairman Richard C. Shelby told reporters Thursday afternoon. “Obama got a big win.”
The House passed the measure, 266-167, on Wednesday with little drama and mostly Democratic votes.
Republican leaders were quick to note they also achieved a few of their own goals.
“This is a fully offset agreement that rejects tax hikes, secures long-term savings through entitlement reforms, and provides increased support for our military — at a time when we confront threats in multiple theaters,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Thursday morning on the floor.
It also raises defense spending caps and inflates the Pentagon’s controversial war fund, another major Republican leadership objective that helped secure the votes of some GOP defense hawks in both chambers.
“We did get some help in defense — but at a price,” Shelby said.
“A lot of it is going to be borrowed. And a lot comes in the out years,” Shelby added, referencing the last few years of the Pentagon’s five-year budget plan. Those additional dollars could become targets in future last-minute budget deliberations.
The Pentagon and U.S. arms manufacturers were winners in the deal. But even bigger victors were congressional Democrats — and they did little to hide their glee.
Democratic leaders appeared to have a clear strategy, and their rank and file remained unified behind it during the talks and after details of the plan surfaced. Democrats knew the battleground would be in the Senate, because their whims would be steamrolled in the House, where the GOP has a sizable majority.
For months, Democrats opposed the use of war funds to circumvent sequester cuts without equal funding increases for domestic programs. Senate Democrats protested by blocking all appropriations bills until a budget deal busting the caps was reached. The White House joined Democrats all summer and into the fall in labeling the use of the war fund to help the military but not their prized domestic programs “irresponsible” and a “gimmick.”
As one senior Senate Democratic aide told CQ Roll Call, “Arguing for higher spending is hard to do.” So Democrats spent time telling voters how the cuts affected them: with law enforcement grants, cybersecurity funding, earthquake preparation, Amtrak funding and more.
Whenever McConnell tested the Democrats’ resolve by bringing appropriations bills to the floor, they held strong.
Once Boehner declared his intention to “clean the barn” before leaving Congress by striking a budget deal that included the debt-ceiling hike, it immediately became clear he and McConnell would need plenty of Democratic votes. Coupled with the need for Obama’s signature, Democrats seemed to immediately smell victory.
After a remarkably secretive round of talks, a minority party in both chambers — and with a president who has struggled to enact his budgetary priorities with a hostile Congress — had secured a major win.
“If you look at the goals we’ve laid out for months,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York told CQ Roll Call, “we’ve achieved them.”
He described those goals as more funding for programs at home, avoiding an across-the-board spending cut known as sequestration, and a “50-50” split in new government spending.
What about that months-long protest over the inflated war fund? It’s over.
“It’s matched by non-defense funding,” explained Schumer as he grinned.
All week, Democrats described the deal much like their leader, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, who dubbed it “a good agreement.” They also slapped on the “responsible” label, seemingly to counter the GOP critique that it calls for too much federal spending and too little debt-reduction.
After Wednesday’s House vote, Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., held an impromptu press conference and touted the deal’s substance. By contrast, there was no GOP leadership press conference.
McConnell and other GOP lawmakers made clear they supported it mostly due to its increase in military spending — and because the alternative was a potentially catastrophic U.S. debt default. As the clock ticked toward Senate floor votes on the measure, Republican leaders mostly pointed out what, for their members, were its silver linings.
“This agreement isn’t perfect,” he said. “I share some concerns other colleagues have raised.”
As for members of the caucus who voted against the package, the majority leader seemed resigned to their opposition to a bill Democrats were so enthusiastically touting.
“Colleagues know that I will respect whatever choice they ultimately make when this agreement comes up for a vote,” McConnell said Thursday morning. “There are valid differences of opinion, and that’s okay.”
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