WASHINGTON - Year-end legislation to ease Congress' chronic budget brinkmanship and soften across-the-board spending cuts moved to the cusp of final passage Tuesday, a rare display of Senate bipartisanship that masked strong complaints about slicing into military retirement benefits.
The measure is expected to clear the Senate and go to President Barack Obama for his signature on Wednesday, marking a modest accomplishment at the end of a year punctuated by a partial government shutdown, a near-default by the U.S. Treasury and congressional gridlock on issues ranging from immigration to gun control.
"This bipartisan bill takes the first steps toward rebuilding our broken budget process. And, hopefully, toward rebuilding our broken Congress," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who negotiated the compromise with Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. The first major test of that is likely to come in February, when Congress faces a vote to raise the government's debt limit.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., center, accompanied by, from left, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, talks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, following a Republican policy luncheon.
Tuesday's vote to send the measure toward final approval was 67-33. But even as it was advancing, Republicans vowed that the requirement for curtailing the growth in cost-of-living benefits for military retirees under age 62 wouldn't long survive. The Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, has said the panel will review the change, estimated to trim some $6.3 billion in benefits, early next year.
"This provision is absolutely wrong; it singles out our military retirees," protested Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., at a news conference shortly before the vote.
By late afternoon, the bipartisanship had faded as Republicans ratcheted up their criticism and maneuvered for political gain. A proposal aimed at removing the retirement provision failed on a near party-line vote of 46-54. Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, who faces a difficult challenge for re-election, was the only senator to switch sides.
In a further indication of the issue's political importance, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and more than a dozen other Democrats announced they were backing separate legislation to restore the military retirement benefits and make up the money by closing a tax loophole on offshore corporations.
How could any commander in chief sign a bill that does this," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who faces a primary challenge back home in 2014. He did not mention that the legislation drew overwhelming support from House Republicans only last week, including Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and the rest of the leadership.
The provision related to military retirement was a relatively small part of legislation that itself was born of less-than-lofty ambitions.
Rather than reaching for a so-called grand bargain to reduce long-term deficits, lawmakers decided to reduce across-the-board cuts already scheduled to take effect, restoring about $63 billion over two years. The legislation includes a projected $85 billion in savings elsewhere in the budget.
Because spending would rise immediately but many of the savings would take place later in the decade, deficits would increase as a result of the measure for the current budget year and the two that follow. Over the 10-year period, the legislation measure shows a $23 billion cut in red ink - a trifle compared with the government's overall debt of more than $17 trillion and rising.