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White House and Congress reach tentative budget deal

Republican Congressional leaders and the White House settled on a two-year budget agreement late Monday that would modestly increase spending over the next two years, cut some social programs, and raise the federal debt limit. House GOP leaders introduced legislation just before midnight, clearing the way for the $80 billion budget accord that would somewhat increase spending on defense and domestic programs, and eventually allowing President Obama to borrow as much as he needs to keep the government operating till 2017. The deal aims to add more discretionary spending to this year’s budget, as all sides look to clear the air off their heads ahead of House Speaker John A. Boehner’s retirement.

The 144-page budget bill, which is the result of five years of bitter clashes between the White House and Congressional leaders, would increase spending by $80 billion over the next two years and would increase the federal borrowing limit through March 15, 2017. The plan is designed to eliminate the risk that the government might default and diminish the prospect of a partial government shutdown in December. In addition, the deal is expected to block price increases on seniors who use Medicare Part B, halting forthcoming boosts in their premiums and deductibles as well as savings or revenue from an array of other programs, including selling oil from the nation’s strategic petroleum reserves.

A vote on the deal could come as early as Wednesday. It would be one of the final legislative acts for John A. Boehner who intends to step down from the speakership by Friday after repeated confrontations with his party’s hard-right flank. Boehner has managed to put together a few bipartisan accomplishments this year, including a payment-funding fix to Medicare this spring and trade-negotiation authority this summer.

After abruptly announcing his surprise retirement last month, Boehner had vowed to “clean up the barn” for his successor. Resolving the budget standoff would at least clear one of the most divisive issues from the agenda of Rep. Paul Ryan, who is expected to become the next House speaker when elections take place Thursday. The more legislation Boehner can push through the testy GOP-led House in the days ahead, the smoother the transition will be for Ryan.

Boehner’s critics on the right quickly sought to spur Republican opposition, and Conservative lawmakers left the evening meeting fuming that the speaker was trying to cut a last-minute deal before stepping aside.

“Regardless of whatever the timing is, the process is flawed. I’ve said that over and over and over again. This is not the way we should produce legislation. It produces unintended consequences,” said Rep. Daniel Webster, a Florida Republican mounting a long shot bid to replace Mr. Boehner as speaker.

“In Washington, cleaning the barn is apparently synonymous with shoveling manure on the American people,” said Heritage Action Chief Executive Michael A. Needham. “John Boehner is clearly a rogue agent negotiating on behalf of well-connected special interests, not the voters that gave him the gavel.”

Liberal groups also voiced their own concerns. Jim Dean, chairman of Democracy for America, said,” The White House needs to know that any budget deal that cuts Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid benefits or eligibility for those benefits is unacceptable to the American people and roughly equivalent to declaring a holy war on struggling working families near the kickoff of the 2016 election.”

For weeks, aides to Congressional leaders and the White House have been meeting behind closed doors on a possible budget deal that could settle a number of tricky fiscal issues – the foremost agenda has been to roll back some of the steep sequester cuts that were agreed to after a 2011 debt ceiling showdown. Both the sides have been trying to undo the sequester cuts that were due to take tens of billions of dollars out of discretionary spending in fiscal year 2016. Republicans have wanted to halt cuts to the Pentagon, while Democrats have sought to ease reductions to domestic programs.

Nonetheless, the deal would represent a major breakthrough after years of gridlock in Congress, especially on fiscal issues. For one, it frees Mr. Obama from budget battles as he looks to secure his legacy for the remainder of his second term. The agreement would also repeal a delayed provision of the 2010 health law requiring employers to automatically enroll workers in company plans. And for Mr. Boehner, this would make good on his promise he made in the days after announcing his resignation.

Image Courtesy: Gage Skidmore