WASHINGTON - Congressional negotiators set to work Wednesday trying to sell a compromise budget plan to conservatives who are upset by continued deficit spending and liberals who want an extension of unemployment benefits for long-term jobless Americans. President Barack Obama called the agreement a good first step, one that would prevent another government shutdown early next year.
The path to the bipartisan deal was greased by falling poll numbers for both Democrats, who control the Senate, and Republicans, who control the House of Representatives.
Democrats are taking a major hit over the flawed roll-out of the president's massive health care overhaul. Republicans have lost favour for having forced the 16-day government shutdown and bringing the U.S. to the brink of a debt default in October, when budget negotiations fell apart over the opposition party's attempt to derail the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. The shutdown cost the government and the U.S. economy billions of dollars.
In welcome news to House Republican leaders, Rep. Jeff Miller said most Republicans would back the deal worked out by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray.
The House plans to vote before it adjourns for the year Friday.
Still, there was some grumbling from liberals and conservatives as the pact doesn't solve long-term tax and spending issues, and ignores expiring unemployment benefits.
Sen. Rand Paul, a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, announced his opposition, saying that "undoing tens of billions of this modest spending restraint is shameful and must be opposed."
But House Speaker John Boehner dismissed criticism from groups such as Heritage Action, which raise money as they criticize Republicans for being insufficiently conservative.
"They're using our members and they're using the American people to further their own goals," Boehner said. "This is ridiculous."
Some House Democrats were less than enthusiastic, too.
"Stay tuned," said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, when asked about whether Democrats would support the bill.
The deal reached Tuesday restores about $63 billion in across-the-board automatic spending cuts to programs ranging from parks to the Defence Department. Those crude cuts — known as the sequester — were the delayed result of yet another failure by Congress to negotiate a deal on government spending, that time back in 2011.
Congress needed to reach a deal this time because the legislation that ended the 16-day partial government shutdown in October expires on Jan. 15. The agreement stipulates a new spending level for the remainder of the current budget year as well as the one that begins next Oct. 1.
The deal is aimed less at chipping away at the $17 trillion national debt than it is at trying to help a dysfunctional Washington stop lurching from crisis to crisis. It would set the stage for action in January on a $1 trillion-plus spending bill for the budget year that began in October. Members of Congress were hoping to take a vote before they leave town for the Christmas holiday.
But the plan does nothing to address three of the big drivers of deficit spending — the Medicare government health insurance program for the elderly, the Medicaid program for the poor and the Social Security government pension system.
While Tuesday's agreement would have little impact on the nation's debt and deficits, it holds the potential for avoiding politically charged budget clashes as it eases the sequester spending cuts for the next year or two. It also was reached without the threat of an impending catastrophic deadline hanging over lawmakers' heads, an accomplishment for a Congress that has lurched from one budget crisis to the next.
The measure unveiled by Ryan, a Republican, and his Senate counterpart Murray, blends $85 billion in spending cuts and revenue from new and extended fees to replace $63 billion in cuts to agency budgets over the coming two years.
The White House quickly issued a statement from Obama praising the deal as a "good first step." He urged lawmakers in both parties to follow up and "actually pass a budget based on this agreement so I can sign it into law and our economy can continue growing and creating jobs without more Washington headwinds."
The U.S. federal budget year begins on Oct. 1. But Congress, snarled in political disagreements, could not agree to a budget plan at the time and the government was partially shut down. The U.S. also came close to the first-ever federal default when Congress couldn't reach agreement on raising the debt ceiling, needed so the government could pay its bills on time. Republicans relented and agreed to a short-term deal to fund the federal government and raise the debt ceiling when it became clear that Americans were deeply angered over their tactics.
The plan pales compared with earlier, failed attempts at a "grand bargain" that would trade tax hikes for structural curbs to ever-growing benefit programs like Medicare and Social Security, which provides monthly pension benefits to senior citizens. But it would at least bring some stability on the budget to an institution — Congress — whose approval ratings are at all-time lows.
Ryan, the 2012 Republican vice-presidential candidate, said the agreement "makes sure that we don't have a government shutdown scenario in January. It makes sure that we don't have another government shutdown scenario in October."
Ryan pitched the measure to skeptical conservatives at a closed-door meeting Wednesday. Democrats were set to discuss it as well.