U.S. House approves two-year budget

Senate expected to vote on spending plan next week

By Andrew Clevenger / The Bulletin / @andclev

WASHINGTON — Before concluding its business for the year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a two-year budget Thursday that eases the mandatory cuts of sequestration and reduces the deficit with a rare demonstration of bipartisanship.

The budget, crafted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., increased 2014 and 2015 spending levels for both defense and domestic programs.

By eliminating waste and fraud, such as government payments to dead people, and increasing some fees, such as the security fee for airline flights, the deal includes modest deficit reduction of $23 billion over 10 years.

The budget passed by a 332-94 margin, with 169 Republicans and 163 Democrats voting in favor. More Republicans (62) than Democrats (32) voted against the bill. The U.S. Senate still must vote on the deal.

Oregon’s delegation split on the vote, with Reps. Greg Walden, R-Hood River; Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland; Suzanne Bonamici, D-Beaverton; and Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, all supporting the deal. Only Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Canby, voted against it.

Walden, whose district includes Central Oregon, said Thursday he supported the budget because it alleviates the across-the-board nature of sequestration’s cuts and allows for flexibility on spending.

“In an era of split government, you do have to govern. I think the responsible vote here is one that doesn’t lead to another shutdown,” he said referring to the budget impasse that closed the federal government for 16 days in October. “It’s one that leads to smarter choices on spending.”

Heavy cuts loomed for the Pentagon’s budget, and the new budget provides about $20 billion of breathing room for 2014.

“Virtually the whole sequester cut this year would go against defense (spending),” Walden said. “At some point, we do the country a huge disservice if we’re hollowing out our capabilities.”

While the bill passed easily, the compromise did not appeal to everyone.

Many Democrats were upset that it did not include an extension of emergency unemployment benefits, which will expire Dec. 28 for a projected 1.3 million people nationwide, including 21,000 Oregonians, according to the Oregon Center for Public Policy.

Some conservative organizations, including FreedomWorks and Heritage Action, recoiled at the prospect of raising spending levels above those set by 2011’s Budget Control Act, which established sequestration.

The Club for Growth, which believes in limited government and low taxes, scored the vote, meaning GOP members who voted for it risk incurring the group’s wrath, which could lead it to support conservative challengers against them in next year’s primary election.

Walden, noting that while Republicans control the House, Democrats control the White House and Senate, agreed that the deal didn’t go as far as he would of liked, but it nonetheless reduced the deficit without raising taxes.

“The conservative vote here is to reduce deficit spending,” he said.

In a prepared statement, DeFazio said he was thankful that the budget didn’t hurt seniors by slashing Social Security or privatizing Medicare. But he fumed over the failure to extend emergency unemployment.

“While my Republican colleagues think the unemployed are living the good life, I suggest they try feeding their family on unemployment benefits,” he said, adding that the deal did not close a single tax loophole for the wealthy.

“Budgets are about making choices that reflect our values. Today’s budget is a compromise, but it is also a choice that says Congress will protect the wealthy and leave the unemployed even further behind.”

Bonamici said she supported the bill because it was a first step toward removing the harmful effects of sequestration. She also voiced frustration over the provision that raised revenue by requiring newly hired federal employees to contribute a larger share toward their pensions.

“Federal employees are not the cause of our long-term deficit, and they must stop being used as political pawns,” she said in a prepared statement.

The bill provides some short-term relief, but after 2015, keeps spending at sequestration levels through 2023, Schrader noted.

“To call this a budget deal is making it out to be more than it is,” Schrader said in a prepared statement. “It does reduce the effect of sequestration in the short term, but it pays for it through a budget gimmick by adding an extra two years of sequestration in the long term.”

The bill now heads to the Senate, which is expected to vote on it next week. Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats, did not provide The Bulletin any indication of whether they would vote to support or reject the budget deal.

— Reporter: 202-662-7456, aclevenger@bendbulletin.com