WASHINGTON - Budget negotiators announced Tuesday a bipartisan deal to set spending levels for the federal government for two years and partially replace unpopular spending cuts with other savings.
House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., led the negotiations that had intensified in recent days as a Dec. 13 deadline approaches.
In a joint appearance Tuesday evening in the U.S. Capitol, Ryan and Murray said the agreement would stop the government "lurching from crisis to crisis" and eliminate the threat of another government shutdown. The current stopgap funding measure is scheduled to run out again Jan. 15.
President Obama praised the deal as "a good first step" and said he would sign it if it reaches his desk.
If approved, the agreement would put the congressional budget process back on track, allowing for passage of the 12 annual bills that cover federal spending other than mandatory programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Ryan noted that it is the first bipartisan budget agreement to come out of a divided Congress since 1986. "This isn't easy," he said.
The budget framework sets top-line spending figures for the next two fiscal years and partially replaces for two years the sequester - the across-the-board spending cuts triggered earlier this year following prior failures to reach a budget agreement -- with other cuts and non-tax revenues.
For fiscal year 2014, overall federal spending will be $1.012 trillion and $1.014 trillion for fiscal year 2015. The agreement replaces $63 billion in sequester cuts with a combination of other savings, and includes an additional $22.5 billion in deficit reduction.
There is already growing opposition from influential outside conservative groups, and it is unclear how many Republicans would vote for it despite Ryan's endorsement. "As a conservative, I think this is a step in the right direction," Ryan said, "I think conservatives should vote for it." Ryan will brief rank-and-file Republicans on Wednesday morning.
Fiscal conservatives have voiced reservations about a spending level higher than $967 billion, which is the level set by the sequester cuts.
"It's disingenuous for Republicans to surrender the only real spending reforms accomplished under the Obama administration, and call that a deal," said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks. The group opposes the deal and is urging lawmakers to vote against it.
Senior Republican lawmakers including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, also expressed reservations Tuesday to any deal that increases spending levels. "My initial reaction is 'no,' " Hatch said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., immediately announced his opposition Tuesday evening. "(The American people) deserve better than this," he said in a statement.
House Democrats unsuccessfully sought to use the negotiations as a vehicle to secure an extension of unemployment benefits set to expire at the end of the month. Benefits affecting 1.3 million long-term unemployed workers are set to expire if Congress doesn't act, and the budget deal could be the only vehicle headed to President Obama's desk before the House of Representatives adjourns until the new year on Friday. The Senate is scheduled to be in session next week.
Ryan and Murray said unemployment benefits were not part of their deal, and would need to be settled separately.
Democrats were also likely to lose support within their party because the agreement cuts the federal employee pension system and includes no new tax revenues.
"This plan won't create jobs, get the economy back on track, or meaningfully cut the deficit," tweeted Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.
The agreement comes at the end of what has been the most unproductive legislative year in Congress on record, and at a time when congressional approval ratings continue to hover at historic lows.
The agreement is a sign that Congress can still function, negotiators said.
"This bill doesn't solve all of our problems, but I think it's an important step in helping to heal some of the wounds here in Congress, to rebuild some trust, and show that we can do something without a crisis right around the corner and demonstrate the value in making the government work for the people we represent," Murray said.
(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)