House approves budget deal, handing major victory to Boehner

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The House on Thursday approved a two-year budget deal that turns off $63 billion in sequester spending cuts, handing a major victory to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio.). 

Large majorities in both parties backed the bill in a 332-94 vote.

The strong vote also represents a big win for Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the Republican negotiator of the deal who has taken flack from the right in recent days. Ryan, a star in the party, said afterward he was surprised by how high the vote was.

Only 62 Republicans defected despite harsh criticism of the deal by conservative groups that said it did too little to cut spending, compared to 169 Republicans who backed it. The Democratic vote was 163-32.

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Heritage Action, the Club for Growth and other groups said they would negatively score votes in favor of the legislation, but those threats failed to create a stampede against the bill.

Instead, members rallied around Boehner, who had strongly pushed back at the criticism from the outside groups, which he charged had “lost all credibility.”

During the debate, he said the bill does everything conservatives want.

“If you're for reducing the budget deficit, then you should be voting for this bill,” the Speaker said. “If you're for cutting the size of government, you should you be supporting this budget.

“If you're for preventing tax increases, you should be voting for this budget. If you're for entitlement reform, you ought to be voting for this budget. These are the things I came here to do, and this budget does them,” he said.

Ryan negotiated the deal with his Senate counterpart, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and his credentials with conservatives helped GOP leaders win votes.

While the deal did not represent the “grand bargain” of entitlement reforms and tax hikes Boehner and President Obama flirted with in 2011, Ryan argued it represented a victory for conservatives because it will reduce deficits by $23 billion over 10 years.

The bill cuts the deficit, avoids tax hikes and makes permanent reforms to save money, such as stopping welfare checks to criminals, Ryan said.

He also said it reflected the reality of divided government in Washington, where Republicans hold only the House, and that it would prevent another government shutdown.

Near the end of the debate, Ryan noted that, as the GOP's vice presidential candidate in 2012, he was part of the GOP effort to return Republicans to the White House.

“We tried defeating this president,” he said. “I wish we would have.”

“Elections have consequences,” Ryan added. “And I fundamentally believe — this is my personal opinion, I know it's a slightly partisan thing to say — to really do what we think needs to be done, we're going to have to win some elections.

“And in the meantime, let's try to make this divided government work.”

The bill includes no new tax increases, nor does it make changes to entitlement programs that are the biggest drivers of federal spending.

It now heads to the Senate, where a vote is expected next week. The president has already announced his support for the deal.

Once it is signed into law, Congress will need to approve a giant spending bill for the rest of the fiscal year to keep the government funded.

Votes on that legislation are expected after the holiday recess to give appropriators time to produce a bill. New legislation is needed by Jan. 16 to avoid a government shutdown.

Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Appropriations Committee praised the deal as a chance to return to regular order: the passing of full appropriations bills instead of passing continuing resolutions.

Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said passage of the budget is just a first step toward passing an omnibus bill for 2014, which he said he hopes can be done by mid-January.

“The best way to trim spending, ensure wise investments of taxpayer dollars, and provide stability for our government and our economy is to do appropriations bills on an annual basis, each one separately brought to the floor as the Constitution intends,” he said.

The deal passed easily once House Democrats dropped a threat to oppose the deal for not including an extension of federal unemployment benefits set to expire this year.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) signaled Democrats would be on board when she announced her "yes" vote on Thursday.

“Let's get through it, let's get it off the table, let's move on to addressing specific issues," she told reporters in the Capitol. “We're very unhappy about it, but not enough to say, ‘Therefore we're going to make matters worse by not having an agreement.’ ”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Thursday said extending the unemployment benefits would be his chamber’s first order of business in 2014.

House Budget Committee ranking member Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said GOP leaders will not allow a vote on unemployment benefits regardless of whether the budget passes.

“The only thing we would accomplish by defeating this budget agreement would be to go home with a lot of uncertainty and with the sequester guaranteed to hit in January,” he said. “That is not a good result. This agreement is a better result.”

The deal is a relief for the Pentagon, which had long pressed Congress to turn off the sequester.

But conservatives opposed to the deal argued that by reducing the automatic spending cuts by $63 billion, the legislation actually would increase spending over the next two years.

Under the budget deal, the top-line spending level for 2014 would rise from $967 billion to $1.012 trillion in 2014 and from $995 billion to $1.014 trillion in 2015. 

To pay for the spending increase, the deal contains a range of offsets, including $12 billion in reduced military and federal pension benefits; $13.6 billion from new user fees on air travel and food aid shipments; and $28 billion from extending cuts to Medicare nine years from now. 

Notable GOP defections include Appropriations subcommittee Chairman Jack Kingston (Ga.) who is running for Senate. Two other Georgia lawmakers, Reps. Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun, were also no votes.

Rep. Tom Price (Ga.), a close ally of Ryan's, and Rep. Tom Graves (Ga.), a Tea Party-backed member who is now an appropriator, voted yes.

 Several members who said they were on the fence ended up voting "no."  

They included Republican Study Committee Chairman Steve Scalise (La.), Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), a big admirer of Ryan; Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio).

 —Pete Kasperowicz contributed.  

This story was updated at 7:24 p.m.

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